Posted on: 2013-02-03
That night, Aunt Phillips fussed over Elizabeth upon the moment of her arrival, loudly enumerating her worries for her niece's injuries. Although Elizabeth would exclaim against such uneasiness and proclaim the soundness of her feet (which were tucked inside her bandages and a pair of Lydia's slightly larger shoes), she was nonetheless bidden by her fluttering aunt and mother to sit and remain seated as soon as she disembarked the carriage, an order which perturbed her to no small degree, as she felt herself greatly in a mood to mix with the diverse company crammed into the little drawing room of the Phillips' apartment.
After a few bids at cards, she and her family supped well with the sociable company, which included, among several militiamen, Colonel Foster and his new bride, whom Elizabeth thought a bit too young and feather-headed to be married. The young Mrs. Foster's friendship with Lydia appeared already very solid, and the two of them sniggered away and flirted with the officers across their plates in such a fashion as Elizabeth could hardly countenance. She sought relief from their discomfiting antics, which she found in the glowing visage of her elder sister farther down the table.
Jane was happily ensconced with Mr. Bingley at the corner of the supper table, where he was speaking to her almost exclusively--and causing quite a stir for having done so since he had handed her out from the carriage that evening. Indeed, in the separation of the sexes that followed, it was with great embarrassment that Elizabeth overheard her mother and her aunt speculating in a most animated fashion as to when that young man would propose to their lovely Jane.
When the gentlemen returned to the room, Elizabeth felt a great deal of relief. The officers of the ----shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set, and the best of them were of the present party; but the new one, whom she learnt was called Mr. Wickham, was as far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy uncle Phillips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room. Indeed, it was Mr. Wickham, with his handsome face and gentlemanly comportment, who was the happy man who instantly claimed the attention of almost every young woman in the room the moment he entered it.
Elizabeth followed him with her eyes under the influence of innate female curiosity, but she was arrested at Lydia's insistence by Mr. Denny, who escorted her to the settee in the middle of the room and bade her rest her feet, despite her protests. From that vantage point, she watched as several pleasant tables of cards were again made up, including a game of lottery tickets, much to her sister Lydia's delight. Lydia's exclamations as the game commenced were lost to the rest of the room, however, for her sister Mary had crept to the small and slightly flat-toned pianoforte next to their little card table and commenced to play with immoderate volume.
Mr. Denny lingered at Elizabeth's side making conversation only for a few moments before Lydia called him to away for another game, but those moments were effective, for he did his duty well and kindly introduced her to his new, and very handsome, friend, Mr. Wickham.
"Miss Bennet, how do you do?" said Mr. Wickham, bowing to her with a charming flourish. Immediately, Elizabeth sensed in him a liveliness of manner that she could not but appreciate, for it was like her own.
"I am well, sir, although my dear aunt has sequestered me to this couch due to some unfounded anxieties about my feet. I am sure Mr. Denny has told you of the fire at our home at Longbourn," she replied in a light tone, hoping she would not have to burden her new hearer with the tale, but also wishing to explain the officious behavior of her family and friends to him.
"Indeed, and I am delighted to also hear that your family all came out of it well," he replied charitably, confirming her impression of his agreeable nature. The easy manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it consisted only of seeing to her comfort and remarking on its being a wet night, made her feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker. He, equally delighted by her wit, and curious regarding the topic of the fire, which she had as yet only hesitantly introduced, returned to the subject with a delicacy and kindness that could not but draw her out.
"I do not wish to burden you if you do not wish to speak of it, but I had heard from Mr. Denny that your injuries at present were tendered as the price of a very noble victory--the rescue of a sister of yours. Is she well? Is she here tonight?"
"My younger sister Catherine, whom we call Kitty, is much recovered, but not yet well enough to join us tonight. She is still recuperating at Netherfield, the estate of Mr. Bingley. He is our neighbor, whom you see seated there with my sister, Jane, and he has been our host these past few days." As she said this, Elizabeth turned her head to indicate the position of her sister and Mr. Bingley.
"Upon my word, it is certainly kind of Mr. Bingley to show such hospitality to his neighbors," observed Mr. Wickham, nodding in Mr. Bingley's direction in an attitude of respect.
"Truly, he is very kind," agreed Elizabeth, "especially when he is only just settled himself in the neighborhood, and keeps other guests in his home."
"That is generosity indeed! Yet I wonder at his being here without his other guests, if he is playing host," said Mr. Wickham lightly. "I hope they do not think so poorly of the company of militiamen as to avoid joining us, for I should be very disappointed indeed to never have opportunity to meet the friends of such a kind man as Mr. Bingley."
"Oh, no, sir, I certainly do not believe that to be the case!" exclaimed Elizabeth at once, not wishing him to think for a moment that anyone in Hertfordshire would be in the least bit unwelcoming to him. But then she realized that she was being teased, for Mr. Wickham was smiling at her in such a way that proclaimed some triumph at seeing her rush so passionately to soothe his concern.
Elizabeth could do naught but act in accordance with her nature. She returned his joke at her expense with one of her own. "Well, Mr. Bingley's sisters are ladies of most determined fashion. When they sent their regrets, I confess I did rather wonder at it. I attributed it at first to their distaste for our local wardrobe, rather than the color of our new Coats. But if you think they are avoiding our men-at-arms, then it is certainly their loss!" Elizabeth teased back amiably. More seriously, she added, "But Mr. Bingley's friend, who is staying with him, must truly be excused. Mr. Darcy spent a good deal of time assisting my father with the arrangements for making repairs to our home after the event, and I daresay he would have come with his friend tonight, had it not been for the more pressing concerns of his own estate, which he has been forced to neglect out of kindness."
"Ah, Mr. Darcy is staying with Mr. Bingley, then?" said Mr. Wickham searchingly. As he said this, Elizabeth saw that his face changed color. It had now gone rather white.
Elizabeth stammered her response, surprised at his reaction. "Why--yes, that is, they are friends, and I understand he came up from London with Mr. Bingley to help him settle his estate at Netherfield, as it is Mr. Bingley's first landed establishment."
He asked her then, in a hesitating manner, how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there. She could only reply with what she knew: "About a month."
"I see. And are you well acquainted with Mr. Darcy?" Mr. Wickham asked, his voice once again becoming more serene and playful.
Elizabeth was not settled as to how to answer him. She blinked, reassuring herself that she had not missed his initial reaction; she was certain of seeing him looking shocked but a moment ago, and then being hesitant afterwards. She wished to put him at ease, but she was also wild with curiosity as to understand why Mr. Wickham should appear so unsettled at the mention of Mr. Darcy, and why he should be at pains to conceal his anxiety now.
It seemed to Elizabeth that he was watching her very closely, as if to look for evidence of attachment in her response. She could do naught but answer him truthfully and hope to uncover more of his own apparent connection to Mr. Darcy.
"I own that Mr. Darcy is a difficult man to know. I am acquainted with him, but nothing more," she began. "Well, perhaps that is not true," she amended hastily. "I do owe him my life, after all, for, slight acquaintances though we may be, it was Mr. Darcy who reached Longbourn first upon seeing evidence of the fire from a window at Netherfield. It was he who had heard that I had gone back in the house to look for my sister, and it was he who went inside to get both of us back out again safely. I suppose, that while I do not know him well, I know enough to think well of him."
Mr. Wickham favored her with a wry smile and said, "Indeed? Well, I do recall that when we played as boys, Darcy always did like to act the hero."
It was now Elizabeth's turn to show her astonishment. "You were a childhood playmate of Mr. Darcy?"
"I have known him all my life. I was raised at his father's estate in Derbyshire. My father was old Mr. Darcy's steward. The late Mr. Darcy was one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had." Here, he frowned, and clasped his hands in his lap, looking at his interlaced fingers with an air of such sadness as could only move Elizabeth to concern.
"I can never be in company with this Mr. Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections," continued Mr. Wickham. He looked up steadily at her as he confided, "I'm afraid to say that his behavior to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive him anything and everything, except for what he has done in disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father."
The shock on Elizabeth's face must have been quite something to see, for she could feel her face flaming. "I am all astonishment," she managed to say.
"I can well believe I have surprised you," said Wickham, after a short interruption, "but that is as I often would think to find it. The world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by what some have called his high and imposing manners, and sees him only as he chooses to be seen."
Elizabeth strove to know more, and know better, and yet the anticipation of deeper learning seemed to only give her as much pain as could be measured with her progress. It distressed her oddly to hear Mr. Darcy so ill-spoken of, perhaps because Mr. Wickham's description of Mr. Darcy's manners reminded her of her own initial dislike of him, as well as her own poor first rendering of his character. She found strangely little pleasure in the intimation that her original instincts regarding Mr. Darcy may have been correct.
Seeking revelations that would cause her less pain, she turned her questions to the subject of the man before her instead, with the object being the illustration of his character. "May I ask, sir, if you were raised in Derbyshire, how you came now to be in Meryton in the --shire Regiment?"
Mr. Wickham smiled and nodded at the company about them. "It was the prospect of constant society, and good society, which was my chief inducement to enter the --shire. I knew it to be a most respectable, agreeable corps, and my friend Denny tempted me further by his account of their present quarters, and the very great attentions and excellent acquaintances Meryton had procured them. Society, I own, is necessary to me. I have been a disappointed man, and my spirits will not bear solitude. I must have employment and society. A military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances have now made it eligible. The church ought to have been my profession--I was brought up for the church, and I should at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living, had it pleased the gentleman we were speaking of just now."
Elizabeth could scarcely breathe upon hearing that, of all un-Christian acts, Mr. Darcy should have denied this man something so reverence-worthy as a church living behind a pulpit. "Indeed!" - was all she could say.
"Yes--the late Mr. Darcy bequeathed me the next presentation of the best living in his gift. He was my godfather, and excessively attached to me. I cannot do justice to his kindness. He meant to provide for me amply, and thought he had done it; but when the living fell, it was given elsewhere by his son."
"Good heavens!" cried Elizabeth, this time with less volume, for she was feeling some level of doubt beginning to rise up in her. Why on earth would Mr. Darcy disregard his own father's wishes?
Probing further, she asked what she thought a very excellent rejoining query: "How could his will be disregarded? Why did you not seek legal redress?"
"There was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from the law. A man of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Mr. Darcy chose to doubt it--or to treat it as a merely conditional recommendation, and to assert that I had forfeited all claim to it by extravagance, imprudence--in short anything or nothing. Certain it is, that the living became vacant two years ago, exactly as I was of an age to hold it, and that it was given to another man; and no less certain is it, that I cannot accuse myself of having really done anything to deserve to lose it. I have a warm, unguarded temper, and I may have spoken my opinion of him, and to him, too freely. I can recall nothing worse. But the fact is, that we are very different sorts of men, and that he hates me."
"'Hates' you? I cannot imagine anyone hating you, Mr. Wickham," said Elizabeth, whose attention had been caught not only by the spark of rancor in his declaration, but also by the only words that Wickham had given her regarding the present Mr. Darcy's reason for denying him the living: that the man before her had 'forfeited all claim to it by extravagance, imprudence╔' Elizabeth felt certain that Mr. Darcy, if he had indeed done it, would have to have his reasons to act in such a misanthropic fashion. But what might these reasons be?
Were these failings, which Wickham had listed for himself, enough to justify the denial of such a living? Were these all the failings of character that Mr. Wickham might have?
"Perhaps it is not hatred he feels," amended Wickham, who was continuing with some warmth, "but a thorough, determined dislike of me--a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mr. Darcy liked me less, his son might have borne with me better; but his father's uncommon attachment to me irritated him, I believe, very early in life. He had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood--the sort of preference which was often given me."
After a few seconds' reflection at this, Elizabeth continued, "I do remember his boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments, of his having an unforgiving temper."
"I will not trust myself on the subject," replied Wickham; "I can hardly be just to him."
This statement, Elizabeth thought, had enough merit to certainly be true. She fell into deeper thought, in which she could only make out two things: that Wickham clearly seemed to feel as though Mr. Darcy had wronged him unjustly, and also that the motives which Wickham offered for such ill-treatment, to Elizabeth's mind, seemed to be far too slight an irritation to compel a man like Mr. Darcy to take such decided action against anyone.
For what benefit could it be to a man in such a position as Mr. Darcy (who, even while his father was living, stood to inherit Pemberley and was decorated with all the bright ornaments of privilege given to a first-born and only son and heir) to do such a thing against another man who had no real consequence in the world, even if that man might gleefully own a greater friendship with his rival's father? What solace could a scion holding ten thousand pounds per annum have stood to gain by sundering Mr. Wickham from the meager inheritance of a church living--such a small boon by comparison? Beyond even the monetary gains, what emotional succor could that deprivation provide to Mr. Darcy as compensation for what could only be termed a mere injury to pride?
The motives of such an action were not the only features that appeared suspect; it also seemed to Elizabeth beneath all her thoughts of Mr. Darcy's character and habits to even envision him carrying out such a scheme with active malice. Indeed, it went sharply against the now-established pattern that she had witnessed of his propensity to give assistance--even to such undeserving people as her silly family members, so wholly unconnected to himself--rather than to take away any aid that was in his power to grant. She could not imagine it of him.
"To treat in such a manner the godson, the friend, the favourite of his father!" she half-whispered to herself in disbelief, adding louder, "And one, too, who had probably been his companion from childhood, connected together in the closest manner!"
Wickham, overhearing her, nodded and, believing he had her sympathies, unwittingly gave voice to more words which corroborated with her thoughts. "We were born in the same parish, within the same park; the greatest part of our youth was passed together; inmates of the same house, sharing the same amusements, objects of the same parental care. My father began life in the profession which your uncle, Mr. Phillips, appears to do so much credit to--but he gave up everything to be of use to the late Mr. Darcy and devoted all his time to the care of the Pemberley property. He was most highly esteemed by Mr. Darcy, a most intimate, confidential friend. Mr. Darcy often acknowledged himself to be under the greatest obligations to my father's active superintendence, and when, immediately before my father's death, Mr. Darcy gave him a voluntary promise of providing for me, I am convinced that he felt it to be as much a debt of gratitude to him, as of his affection to myself."
Hearing of the depth of their familial connection and affections in his recital, Elizabeth felt herself now more truly at war with all she had observed and heard of the current Mr. Darcy while at Netherfield.
Specifically, she was caught by her ruminations on how principled he seemed, how often selfless he could be, and how much good his sister had reported of him. Her mind traced back to some words she had read and re-read just that morning, in Miss Darcy's letter: 'I cannot praise him overmuch for his care of the principles which he keeps and nurtures as precious remnants of our heritage from our dearly departed parents. Whatever virtues they cherished, he has taught me to treasure as well.'
"How strange!" cried Elizabeth, realizing she had lapsed into silence. Then, rousing herself from her shock at last, she voiced a question to Mr. Wickham which she hoped was worded in such a way as to give him encouragement to continue his flow of information, being that her words would demonstrate that part of her thinking, at least, stood with his on common ground. The only vice in Mr. Darcy that she knew she could latch onto was his occasional pride, for she had witnessed it at work once or twice herself.
"I wonder that the very pride of this Mr. Darcy has not made him just to you! If from no better motive, than that he should have been too proud to be dishonest--for dishonesty I must call it."
"It is wonderful," replied Wickham, "for almost all his actions may be traced to pride; and pride had often been his best friend. It has connected him nearer with virtue than with any other feeling. But we are none of us consistent, and in his behaviour to me there were stronger impulses even than pride."
Here, Elizabeth felt Mr. Wickham might at least give her some pleasure to take in measure with her pains. She wanted to know what good he could say of Mr. Darcy. "Can such abominable pride as you have witnessed ever done him good?" she asked.
She was not unrewarded.
"Yes," he replied. "It has often led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants, and relieve the poor. Family pride, and filial pride--for he is very proud of what his father was--have done this. Not to appear to disgrace his family, to degenerate from the popular qualities, or lose the influence of the Pemberley House, is a powerful motive. He has also brotherly pride, which, with some brotherly affection, makes him a very kind and careful guardian of his sister, and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers."
All of this Elizabeth could see to be true. But now Mr. Wickham had touched upon another pivotal figure for Elizabeth--a person of great interest to her, whose eagerness and goodness had shown itself in her letter, and whose youth and innocence and lack of exposure to society could surely give rise to no defamation, and of whom Elizabeth instinctually knew that her companion could have no cause, if he were truthful at all, to say any wrong.
Elizabeth sucked in a breath, eager to weigh his words against the balance of her feelings regarding her latest correspondent. "What sort of girl is Miss Darcy?" she asked plainly.
He shook his head. "I wish I could call her amiable. It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy. But she is too much like her brother--very, very proud. As a child, she was affectionate and pleasing, and extremely fond of me; and I have devoted hours and hours to her amusement. But she is nothing to me now. She is a handsome girl, about fifteen or sixteen, and, I understand, highly accomplished. Since her father's death, her home has been in London, where a lady lives with her, and superintends her education."
At this remark, her doubt and suspicion increased at once, leaping to a level of vexation. Miss Darcy--very, very proud! Now this was too much to believe, though she had only one letter from the girl as substantiating proof against this unfair charge.
As her hackles rose in defense of her newest friend, she felt herself in danger of causing offense to Mr. Wickham in this moment, and by doing so, chasing him away, along with any answers he could provide. Because she knew she was incapable of denying herself an outlet for her rising agitation, she set out at once to continue her cross-examination of him in a fashion as was most likely to catch him unprepared for the assault: she teased him in such a charming manner that her piercing sarcasm passed by his ear almost utterly undetected.
"I am astonished, Mr. Wickham, at what such a gentle spirit as yourself has endured," she said, in a tone of sweet commiseration. "I only hope that Mr. Darcy shall never meet another man like you: so affable, so apt to speak well of others, and so far in his power, as you have been. Mr. Darcy must be a villain indeed, to conceal his misdeeds to those who know him well, and you must surely be an angel for uncovering them so openly before me, who is almost a stranger to you. I thank you for the warning! But I am troubled, indeed, by what you have said, for now I am in mind of another who may be his next victim." Here, she glanced meaningfully across the room at Jane's doting companion before continuing, "I can only hope that his friend Mr. Bingley, who bears your likeness in temperament, is never ill-used by his friend, when he relies so much upon Mr. Darcy's counsel and believes so firmly in his goodness. He cannot know--not even after all their years of his long acquaintance--what his friend is."
"Probably not," said Mr. Wickham, without hesitation, and seemingly without reading into the double-meanings and subtle barbs couched within so many of her words. "But Mr. Darcy can please where he chooses. He does not want abilities. He can be a conversible companion if he thinks it worth his while. Among those who are at all his equals in consequence, he is a very different man from what he is to the less prosperous. His pride never deserts him; but with the rich he is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable--allowing something for fortune and figure."
"And yet, even with the not-so-rich, he has shown some of these virtues," pointed out Elizabeth, indicating herself and her family, before she could stop herself. She gentled her critique with a smile and offered Mr. Wickham a softer look. Seeing that he was at once mollified, she decided to let him have a measure of her wit to ponder: "I wonder that you can sing his praises so. You have far more charity in you than I would have in your situation, and were I not myself so indebted to the man. The injustice is quite shocking, indeed, considering the disparity between his treatment of you and me! For, in one moment, he rescues two girls of no connection to him from a fire at nearly the cost of his life, when not long before, he had thrown a man who was practically a brother out into the night-hedges over a slight to his pride. Shocking! He deserves to be publicly disgraced, if not to be straightaway sent to Bedlam for what appears to be madness of the most perverse and unstable sort."
And at this, Elizabeth could not help herself; she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh at the very picture she presented to her own mind's eye.
Mr. Wickham blinked, surprised at her sudden shift in humor, and not sure what to make of it, for her tone had remained playful and sweet throughout. "Some time or other he will be shown for what he is--but it shall not be by me," was his answer, at length. "Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him."
Elizabeth listened to this last statement--and heard the perfect self-refutation of its phrasing--and found she was glad for his words. It gave her peace to hear this man contradict himself so unselfconsciously. It also gave her the serenity she needed to smile at him and turn the conversation to safer topics.
Nevertheless, when the room's occupants shifted and drifted apart, and the night's entertainments drew to a close, Elizabeth was glad to be back on her way to Netherfield. Her relief surprised her, and she strove to find the answer for it within herself. After all, Mr. Wickham had shown her every attention and charm this evening, and had she met him under any other circumstances, she might have gone off with her head full of him. Tonight, however, the opposite was true: she wished to rid her head of him, and instead could only think of Mr. Darcy, and wonder at what had been said of him.
She knew she would not rest well until she had searched all her resources for evidence to refute the charges that had been laid at his door.
While Jane sighed in her sleep beneath the counterpane, Elizabeth's sense of justice burned bright within her in the darkness as she turned Miss Darcy's letter over and bent to read its lines once again in the flickering glow of the fireplace. She read again and again Miss Darcy's words regarding her brother's goodness and his love for the things his parents treasured. She thought again and again of the times when his pride had done far more good than harm, at least when it came to her family. She also meditated at length on Mr. Wickham's tale, and pulled into focus those places where his account contradicted with what she felt she knew of Mr. Darcy's character, and indeed, where Mr. Wickham even contradicted himself in the telling.
Fairness demanded no less than this valiant attempt to uncover the real truth of these matters. For, to Elizabeth's mind, it seemed abhorrently wrong for her to begin this week giving thanks to Mr. Darcy for preserving her from certain death in smoke and ash, and then, a mere four days later, to stand breathing in God's clean air, safe again in the cradle of the world, and thinking ill of him.
Posted on: 2013-02-14
Thursday morning dawned too early for the one occupant at Netherfield who had not slept easily. Elizabeth arose from the warm bed late and, with regretful yawns, washed and unwound her dressings to examine her injuries. This was not done without some anxious anticipation, for she was hopeful to find her feet recovered enough to bear the pressure of walking in boots during a visit to Longbourn this day.
Exploring her soles, she found a series of scabs, hard like calluses, strewn across the balls of her feet, which did not bother her. But on her heels, a few cracks and slightly seeping valleys of healing flesh still proved tender where the blisters had ruptured on their own and not yet formed protection.
Nevertheless, she was determined. Seeing her sister fussing with one of her curls in the mirror, she asked, "Jane, do you still have those scissors Miss Bingley loaned to you?"
Jane, who was long ago dressed and had just returned from breakfast to be of assistance to her sister, gave Elizabeth a look of eloquent curiosity, but she helpfully fetched the borrowed sewing scissors nonetheless.
Elizabeth took a few hands-widths of the linen bandage material from her toilette bag and crouched with it on the floor. Using her discarded slippers as a guide, she cut out a double-backed pattern of her own shoe prints from the linen. Then, going to her hatbox, she pulled out some cotton batting and stuffed the fluff into each linen pattern. She was just threading her needle to sew up the makeshift insoles when Jane's curiosity won over and caused her to draw nearer to observe her sister's covert activities.
"I know what you are about, Lizzy!" chided Jane. "Your feet are not truly up to this adventure, are they? Please think of what you might do to yourself! I beg you to leave it for another day."
"No, Jane," said Elizabeth, already running thread and needle into the fabric. "Trust me when I say that I know what I am about. All will be well. I must go and help Papa today."
"If you cannot wear your boots in comfort, Lizzy, you should not go. Papa said so. It is wrong of you to conceal the fact that you are too injured for this outing!" Jane wrung her hands in anxiety.
"Jane, I shall feel just fine in my boots. Don't you see? I mean to take precautions." She held up one of her makeshift insoles. "I shall walk on these, light as air, all over the house at Longbourn, and no harm shall come to me."
Jane looked doubtful. "Are you certain they will be sufficient?"
"Let me finish them, and we shall see. May I borrow your woolen stockings, Jane? I mean to put this padding into the bottoms of them, and then put my feet down after them. I should hate for these cushions to shift about in my boots."
In a little over a half-hour, after some rapid sewing and Jane's help to finish dressing, Elizabeth's plan was tested. Lacing on her boots and finding the fit comfortable and snug, Elizabeth stood and executed a twirl before her sister, arms outstretched in elated satisfaction at her own artfulness. "There, you see!"
"Very well," said Jane. "You have persuaded me. But I am not the only one you must convince."
Elizabeth picked up her reticule and bonnet, beckoning Jane to come with her into the hallway with an eager turn of her wrist. "Papa will not be the wiser," she declared, as she took Jane's arm and set out. "At any rate, he shall have no cause for concern."
They walked for a moment in silence until Jane paused them at the top of the staircase. "I was not only speaking of Papa," Jane confessed with a blush. "I think you should know that Mr. Darcy himself ordered the carriage for your outing at breakfast today, and I daresay he means to go with you and our father to meet with Mr. Higgins."
Elizabeth's color rose in answer, but so did her courage. "I am not afraid of Mr. Darcy, Jane."
"Nor should you be," replied her sister. "But you might excite his suspicions. He is every bit as clever as you, Lizzy, and you can be certain he will observe you carefully."
"That is just as well, Jane," rejoined Elizabeth, adding only to herself, "for I mean to observe him."
She left Jane to Mr. Bingley's company, for he was eagerly awaiting her with his sisters in the parlour. Elizabeth then availed herself of a pastry from the abandoned breakfast table before setting off in search of her father.
She did not need to venture far: he was in the library, running over his own rough estimate of the damages with a frown deeply etched in his brow.
"Good morning, Papa," Elizabeth said brightly, taking in his expression and trying to cheer him.
Mr. Bennet sat back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "Ah, Lizzy. I see you intend to prove your point to me first thing this morning. You have managed to get into your boots."
Elizabeth held up her bonnet, too. "Yes, and I am ready to leave whenever you are."
"Truly?" he looked askance at her.
"Truly. I shall ask Mr. Darcy to fetch his dog, if you wish to see further evidence of my agility."
This piece of sauciness worked; her father laughed. "I daresay the prospect of a footrace is amusing, but I would rather not have you winded when we arrive at Longbourn." At the mention of their home, his face clouded. "You ought to fetch a kerchief. The air there is still not as clean as it could be; every time a workman moves, more soot is scattered about. And you will wish for a work apron."
"I am not worried about a little soot," said Elizabeth, without vanity, "but I shall go and fetch my kerchief and beg a maid for an apron, if it makes you feel better. When shall we depart?"
"Mr. Darcy has already gone to fetch his notebook and confirm the readiness of the carriage. I daresay we can be off in twenty minutes, if you are prepared."
"That will not trouble me. I will complete my errands in one trip," Elizabeth began eagerly, "although I daresay bringing a notebook as well is not a bad idea. I shall need to make lists. I am not sure where I could borrow one, though."
"You may find one at Longbourn," said her father, in a weary tone. "That is, if every bit of paper there was not scorched into charcoal."
"Papa," said Elizabeth, perceiving the deeper worry in his words, and coming to his side. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "We will manage. We truly shall."
Her father took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You're a good girl, my Lizzy." He offered her a weak smile, and then released her. "Now, be off with you, so that we can be on our way."
In twenty minutes, she found herself rolling in a carriage down the bend towards Longbourn, feeling no little sense of trepidation. Her companions -- her father and Mr. Darcy -- were both largely silent, and were observing her rather more closely than she thought her expressions required, but their scrutiny did her one favor: it caused her courage to rise once more.
When she finally looked upon Longbourn, she was gladdened to see that its outside appeared intact, although, like Mr. Darcy had during his Tuesday visit, she immediately noted the single shattered window. As they approached, she could see movement inside the house, and as she strained out the window to see 'round the side of the house, she espied the presence of a cart laden with lumber and supplies squatting on its wheels.
Her father took her hand as she disembarked from the carriage, and Mr. Darcy followed behind as they approached Longbourn's stoop.
It was odd to be greeted at their own front door by a man she had never met, who, upon opening the door, immediately tugged off his gloves and pulled his forelock.
"Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet, ma'am," he said, giving her a bow and meeting her eye with a quick, bright glance that showed both good humor and good sense. There was a smattering of soot on his brow, and he wore a heavy work shirt, rather than a coat, which also showed some smudges. He had apparently been hard at work throughout the morning.
Mr. Darcy came forward and took the man's large, calloused hand. "Mr. Higgins," he said, as they shook on the gesture, "it is good to see you and your team already at work. Mr. Bennet is come with his daughter, Miss Elizabeth, to take inventory within the damaged rooms of the house." Here, he paused and indicated Elizabeth, who was the only stranger to Mr. Higgins. She reflexively curtsied, and the man bowed to her again in a rustic expression of good manners.
When Mr. Higgins straightened, Mr. Darcy continued, "We do not mean to get in the way of your crew with our visit today, Higgins. Is there a room where Mr. Bennet and Miss Bennet could begin their inventory without interrupting your repairs?"
Elizabeth had watched this exchange with some fascination, for instead of greeting his foreman with distant superiority, she had witnessed Mr. Darcy approach him with more warmth, courtesy and assurance than she had ever seen him meet with others who were nearer his station in society. Here, where there was much of substance to be accomplished and where interactions fostered honorable transaction, his expressions were as open and earnest as his conversation was plentiful and direct.
Elizabeth realized that she was beholding Mr. Darcy in his element -- acting as master, and under no pressure to perform to meet anyone's expectations but his own -- and he did himself credit.
Elizabeth found further corroboration of this impression when she perceived that Mr. Higgins did not react with any surprise to Mr. Darcy's manner, but merely responded, "Well, Master, we've set ourselves up in the parlour here," he nodded to the right, indicating the sitting room, "and I expect we'll move into the library towards the afternoon -- to see where that wall was burnt through, so we might take its measure. I expect you could start in the library first, by all means, then trade us places once we finish removing these rafters in the parlour and settin' in the temporary supports for the ceilin'."
"Thank you, Higgins," Mr. Darcy returned, before stepping aside and nodding to her and her father to proceed ahead of him down the hallway.
Elizabeth risked a glance into the busy sitting room as she passed its doorframe. Once her eyes moved past the men at work, she could not miss the blackened walls, charred furniture, and the curled and crumpled ashes sprawled on the floor where there was once a rug that had belonged to her grandmother. She stiffened at the sight, her mind understanding for the first time the loss of family history among the many trappings.
Roused by her father's hand on her arm, she spoke. "I think I will go look for a notebook. I fear I will be making a rather long list."
With that, she disappeared into the old music room, returning to the library with a handful of blank staff-paper in lieu of a notebook, which proved nowhere to be found due to her unsettled mental state. The view afforded to her once she set foot in her father's old sanctuary only made her falter further.
The ruined wall met her eye first, as well as the blackened ribs of shelving shot through with charred grey spines where the books had eagerly been reached by flames and, by them, consumed where they once stood dutifully in place. Her father's beloved desk was warped with heat under its lacquering and blackened on one side, where its footings had been eaten away to the point that it looked in danger of collapsing. His battered leather armchair near the fireplace, too, had been rendered into an upright lump of blistered leather, little resembling its former self.
The loss that moved Elizabeth to greatest distress -- even above all the beloved books which she knew to be essentially lost, and likely forever -- was the devastation of the little table and the ivory chess set that she and her father had practiced on for so many years. Tearfully, she walked to the little table and fingered the white queen, which once had been a pristine pearlescent hue under its polishing, but was now tinted brown and carmel from the heat. Many of the corresponding black teak pieces had been fed upon by the flames, and the board itself was in cinders upon the ruined table.
Hands shaking, she set down the chess piece, tied a kerchief over her mouth and nose, and went to work.
She listed what titles of the books she could still read, guessed at the rest by their position, and then went on to note the damaged furniture, drapes, and picture frames filled with their curling watercolours and singed hand-made embroidered samplers. The chess set, she considered, could possibly be playable with a new board -- only if she were to somehow able to paint the pieces without the paint chipping straight off. They would never be as beautiful as they once were. Nothing in her home ever would be.
Her father laboured at her side, pulling down books that sometimes dissolved into ashes in his hands or fell apart at the ruined binding. Those tomes that lived on shelves at the edges of the fire and which could be rebound, Elizabeth set aside on top of a pile of butcher paper on the floor: the only clean space she could find. It was dirty work, and soon, Elizabeth found her hands covered up with soot, and she had to work hard to keep the soot already on her hem from spreading elsewhere. She was glad of her borrowed apron.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hill have been stripping the rooms upstairs to clean each item, article by article," said her father, as he picked up a magnifying glass and tried to polish off the soot upon it with his handkerchief. "Mrs. Hill assures me that, in the rooms where the floors are sound, and much is all as it was -- albeit in need of laundering, dusting, or scouring."
"That, at least, is good news," said Elizabeth, forcing a smile. Her father only nodded and turned back to jiggle open his desk's warped drawers. Once successful, he began rifling through the mass of his disorganized papers within. Elizabeth, after taking a moment to stretch her back, turned again to her own employment.
Mr. Darcy had given them some privacy during their time in the library by returning to the workmen, seeking information about what materials would need to be ordered for them by her uncle, for Mr. Gardiner was to arrive on the morrow. After an hour or so of occupation in the form of taking measurements and seeking advice regarding needful equipment from Mr. Higgins, Mr. Darcy returned to the library with his own notebook, with the top page covered over in notes and measures, orders for different cuts of lumber and hardwood, as well as the odd joints and bolts and nails and plaster sheets and daub.
Elizabeth peered over his shoulder when her father did, silently reading all that was written in his bold, neat hand and wondering how on earth they would afford it all, even with her uncle's bargain sources and possible assistance in funds.
"I see you have used this past hour well," said Mr. Darcy, casting about for something positive to say, as he surveyed the little piles Elizabeth had formed and sorted.
"I am almost afraid to look in the sitting and dining rooms," she sighed, straightening her own notes and smearing them with soot in the process. She shook her head. "There will be a great deal to do there as well."
"I hope you would not attempt it all today," said Mr. Darcy. "This sort of work is often very taxing, not the least because of the strain of the environment."
Mr. Bennet clapped ashes off his hands and seconded Mr. Darcy's advice. "Indeed, Lizzy. And did you not say that you still wished to call on your friend, Charlotte Lucas?"
Elizabeth pulled the kerchief down from about her nose and laughed. "I confess when I thought of making my visit, I did not realize that I would hardly be fit to be seen when the hour for tea approached. Do you think there might be some water in the kitchen where I could wash?"
"One of your stable lads is still here; he has been taking care of the animals in the pens and outbuildings," said Mr. Darcy. "I could ask him to draw you some, since he has set himself to that task once today already."
Elizabeth blinked, coloring a bit when she realized she had completely forgotten about the other poor living creatures on their estate. She was glad that Mr. Darcy had spared a thought for them. "Indeed, please tell Spencer that I would be grateful," she responded evenly. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy."
Mr. Darcy bowed, and again left her to her work and thoughts. Her meditations were interrupted, however, when the Bennets' own dear cook entered the library, wiping her hands on an apron and looking uncomfortable at being so far from her usual territory.
"Beggin' your pardons, Master Bennet, Miss Elizabeth," said old Mrs. Linville, "But I've been in the kitchen sortin' the larder. Some cheeses and things got a bit warm in the pantry, and they've set to spoilin' something awful. I've started to throw some out that couldn't be fed to the hogs, but there's other things--vegetables and 'tatoes and such--that are still all right, but I think could turn before the family can all come back here to eat 'em. What would you like me to do with 'em?"
Elizabeth put her notes down on the cleared surface of her father's desk and turned to Mrs. Linville at once. "I will be glad to make up some baskets with you of anything that is fit to be taken to the tenants. I suppose it is only the least we can do to thank them for all the assistance they gave to us on that terrible night!"
She turned to her father and excused herself, glad to have a task that would remove her from the soot and sadness of the library for a time.
As she passed through the hall in the wake of her family's oldest servant, she noted that the workmen seemed to have paused for luncheon and was glad that they had managed to take a little ease, as it was well past noon. Elizabeth might have paused for some refreshments herself had she not been assailed by the rancid smell of rotten cheese from the moment she entered the kitchen. One glance at Mrs. Linville, who was holding her apron to her nose with a slightly green complexion, showed her that the nausea was mutual.
"I cleaned up the cheese as best I could," explained that good lady. "But the spoilt smell won't air out. I reckon it's melted right onto the shelves in the larder."
Elizabeth nodded, breathing mostly through her mouth until she could acclimate to the odour as they set to their task.
At some point, while she was helping sort through the salvageable vegetables in the foul-smelling larder and the dry goods in the pantry, their tow-headed stable-lad returned with a bucket of water. It would be nearly an hour before Elizabeth and the cook would finish with their task and have baskets ready for him to take home and to his neighbors on the land; but when all was prepared and had they shown the baskets to the boy, Elizabeth observed his smile and was glad that some good had come of the waste and spoil of the day.
As Elizabeth scrubbed her hands and face at the work counter and attempted to make herself presentable to visit Charlotte, Mr. Darcy stepped through the doorway.
"Oh, I see young Spencer found you," he said, by way of both explanation and apology, and turned aside to give her some privacy as she dabbed her face dry with a kitchen towel.
Elizabeth hastily finished and pushed her damp curls back from her face. "Indeed, and I am most grateful to him. He just left to take some baskets of food from our larder to his sister, who will distribute it to the rest of our tenants."
"That was thoughtful of you," said Mr. Darcy. "I confess, my mind in such events as these considers first the most immediate losses of capital in property, rather than the household tasks and human comforts which would be, in most cases, handled by an effective mistress of an estate. I am not surprised that you responded with such thoughtfulness."
Elizabeth blushed, feeling unable to accept his praise. "And I must confess I was reminded of my duties by our cook. I was pleased to see her here, and so devoted and conscientious. Although I was raised to run a household, I find I was not prepared for such an event as this one."
He nodded his understanding. "Nor could you be. Still, the work is to your credit."
"Thank you," she said, not knowing how else to respond.
"Are you intending to call on your friend now at Lucas Lodge?"
"I am, if I do not look too frightful. I wrote to Miss Lucas yesterday promising to come for tea if I could. If I walk down the lane now, I may still make it in time." She wrung out the rag she had used on her own face and offered it to him, indicating with a silent gesture that his cheek needed attention.
With a frown, he took it and obediently dabbed at the spot on his face, his expression thoughtful. "I could drive you in the carriage. You ought not walk too far after all your work this morning. You are only just now back on your feet." As he said this, he did not look at her, but instead began to focus his attention on the dark marks on his hands, which he began to attack brusquely with the cloth.
Elizabeth shook her head. "Sir, it is barely a mile -- "
"-- and you are already tired." He spared her a dark look, then, which softened when he saw her chagrin. He shook his head and returned to scrubbing at his hands.
Elizabeth expelled a breath, fighting the temptation to argue further. "I am quite well, although I confess to feeling rather peckish. I ought to take my leave before I miss tea service completely."
He paused, stilling his hands from their motion. "Did you not have any breakfast at all? You were not at table this morning."
She lifted her chin. "I awoke late. It was my own fault. I did manage a few bites of pastry before we left."
"That is hardly sufficient. Could I pinch something from the basket we brought in? Your father has already availed himself of some cold ham and cheese."
"Cheese! Oh, heavens -- !" She wrinkled her nose in immediate reaction. "Forgive me, but I think I have had all I can bear for now of that. Can you not smell it?"
"Is that what I smell?" he asked, glancing around with no small degree of disgusted bewilderment.
Elizabeth could not help but grin at his expression. "I fear I will be unable to so much as look at a wedge of cheese without being henceforth reminded of my experience today. Hungry as I am, I still think I shall forgo such a repast at present. Truly, sir, I shall be well until I reach Lucas Lodge."
Mr. Darcy tossed the rag back into the bucket with surprisingly good aim, startling her with the action and with his scolding tone as he returned, "Such obstinace, Miss Bennet! Whatever shall I do with you?"
"'Do with me'?" she exclaimed with a laugh of surprise. "Why, nothing! I am my own mistress, sir, and must compensate for my own whims and follies."
Mr. Darcy glanced meaningfully over her shoulder towards the passage where the servant's stairs stood, charred and naked, a stark reminder of just where her courage-born folly had led her before. "Perhaps, in most cases," he acceded, as she blushed; then he bowed before continuing, somewhat awkwardly, "But allow me, where I can offer it, to render assistance to ensure that your follies do you no real harm. Shall we take to the carriage, Miss Bennet, so that you may arrive at Lucas Lodge in time for tea?"
There was little chance, she knew, of her dissuading him from the course he presented. She had seen already that he was firm where he was certain he was right, and she truly had little time to argue the point in any event.
In a few minutes, she had put on her clean gloves and wrap, taken off her apron and shaken her hem - which was indeed sooty, but would have to do - and met Mr. Darcy outside, where he was speaking to young Spencer while they checked over the team and traces together.
Spencer had apparently returned and, seeing Mr. Darcy occupied with the horses, had taken it upon himself to act as their tiger* and had ensured that the team was once again hitched to the carriage. After a satisfactory examination of the lad's work, Mr. Darcy clapped him on the back, making the boy grin before he tugged his forelock and scuttled around to the rear of the carriage, where he climbed onto the platform above the dumb irons, taking hold of the strap.
As Mr. Darcy approached Elizabeth to hand her in, she glanced around for their driver, whom she realized her father had dismissed that morning, asking him to return at five o'clock. She noted his absence, and thought it likely that he had walked on to Meryton for his own tea-time refreshment, it being just now half-past three. With Spencer on the tail of the conveyance, she was to be the only passenger in the carriage, she surmised, while Mr. Darcy himself took the reins.
Just as Mr. Darcy extended his hand to assist her up the carriage steps, she hesitated. "Are you driving the team, Mr. Darcy?" she asked for confirmation, clasping her hands in front of herself and looking up at him with a far deeper query on her face.
"I am," he replied evenly, but with a wariness that showed his uncertainty as to the motivation behind her query.
She drew in a large breath, so as not to draw another one as she made her odd request. "There is something particular I wished to discuss with you. Would you mind terribly if I rode with you upon the coachman's seat?"
His face showed all his surprise, but he wordlessly led her towards the forebeds and, making a sling of his hands, boosted her up to the coachman's step. As she gained her footing, she reached for the seat irons and pulled myself onto the unfamiliar perch.
With greater agility gained through experience and longer legs, he alighted beside her on the narrow seat and took up the reins. He paused only to adjust his beaver to shade his eyes against the sun and glance at her to ensure that she was also securely settled. Then he started the team forward with a signal from the reins and a clipped, "Step up."
As the horses moved forward with eagerness, Elizabeth saw him adjust his hold to hamper the team's pace. She knew he was waiting for her to speak.
Elizabeth stared straight ahead, gathering her courage. "I must thank you, sir, for two things I now enjoy. The first, being my life and that of my sister. I realize I have not yet properly thanked you for it."
Silent until now, he could not abide her gratitude without objection. "But you have, and you need not -- "
"The second," she persisted, "is the thanks I owe you for the new friend I have gained through correspondence. Your sister is delightful, sir. But I wanted to apprise you of some of the very great extensions of her kindness in her letter to me. Were you aware that she has offered to host us all in London?"
At his baldly astonished expression, Elizabeth laughed. "I had thought not! But you may rest easy, sir, for I have not written back with any corroboration of her scheme. I am attempting to find the words to politely decline without causing her to feel any embarrassment, for she was only doing what she thought best, in these circumstances, to be kind and helpful."
"You are very understanding, Miss Elizabeth," said Mr. Darcy gravely. "I am glad you took the offer in the spirit it was given. She certainly meant no offense -- no offense at all."
"And none was taken, sir. She is right in thinking that my family and I might wish for some temporary lodgings. But I believe my aunt and uncle will wish to host at least some of us -- if not all of us -- soon in London, in any case. We cannot trespass much longer on poor Mr. Bingley's generosity."
"Mr. Bingley takes great pleasure in being of help to his friends and neighbors. You cannot 'trespass' where you are welcome."
Elizabeth checked another laugh, thinking of Miss Bingley. "Mr. Bingley is everything kind and neighborly," Elizabeth amended. "But it is best if we stay with family. I am sure that Mr. Bingley will understand, as will your sister, when we remove ourselves to stay with our relations, once they are prepared to receive us."
Mr. Darcy nodded, looking ahead of them down the lane, which was rapidly drawing up to the lawn before Lucas Lodge. "If you express your wishes to Georgiana in that way, she will, of course, find no fault in your reasoning. Do not worry about hurting her feelings, however; she knows that whatever you write in response to her will be kindly meant."
Elizabeth did laugh a little at that. "I can well believe it! You gave your sister a far more flattering impression of my nature than I feel I rightfully deserve."
"I would not be so bold as to call into question your own self-prejudice, Miss Elizabeth. I believe a week ago I observed that you have a propensity for willful misunderstanding -- a propensity that extends, even, I suppose, to yourself," he said, in a voice so droll that she looked at him askance.
In response to her look, he tipped his hat at her with a small smile, and she, finding humor in the gesture, understood it: he was teasing her, with this dark attempt at humor. His manner of delivery had reached her in so disjointed a mix of archness and dryness that she could not help but chuckle.
Mr. Darcy gave her a rueful glance. "Forgive me. You would have phrased that far better than I."
"Indeed not. I am afraid my teasing is never quite so effective. I have no talent for gravity, and so would have failed to make my comment carry its point."
"I had never thought that seriousness of manner could be considered a talent."
"Of course it is. Did not the Romans laud it as a virtue? Pietas, dignitas, virtus, et - "
"Gravitas," he finished, with no small astonishment at this revelation of her classical education.
"Exactly," said Elizabeth pertly. "I'm sure we have both done our respective Latin teachers very proud with our recitation."
As they rolled up the drive to the front door of Lucas Lodge, it was their easy smiles, even more than their unconventional arrangement on the coachman's seat, which most surprised Charlotte Lucas as she caught sight of them from the doorway where she awaited her friend.
"Elizabeth!" she exclaimed, half in disbelief, half in delight. "And Mr. Darcy! How do you do?"
Mr. Darcy recovered his composure first. He descended from the seat and, once before her on the ground, bowed. "Miss Lucas," he returned.
"How good of you to deliver my dear friend to me, Mr. Darcy," said she, curtseying to him. Once she had risen from her reverence, Charlotte addressed his fair companion, who was still seated aloft on the coachman's seat. "Eliza, it is such a blessing to see you out and about."
"And it is so good to be out and about, my dear Charlotte!" Elizabeth replied with feeling, as she rose and gave her hand to Mr. Darcy, who, being so tall, had a reach capable of giving her assistance, even from the ground. She clambered down to the coachman's step, where she paused and contemplated her most graceful form of descent to the ground a metre below.
Mr. Darcy shook his head as he read Elizabeth's thoughts flitting across her face -- for she was looking down, considering simply jumping and trusting her healing feet to catch her.
He released her fingers, only to raise both of his hands to her, pausing at a height just below her ribcage. "With your permission?" he asked, seeing at once that she understood.
She swallowed hard, and for the second time that week, allowed him to lift her. This time, it was merely a brief exchange, with his hands splayed at her waist for but a moment while he swung her down.
Charlotte was all enraptured fascination. It took every bit of her good breeding not to show her thoughts in her expression as she greeted her friend.
"I am delighted you are come," she said, kissing Elizabeth's cheek and offering her arm. She looked up at her friend's tall companion and offered, "Mr. Darcy, sir, you are more than welcome to join us. Tea has just now been called for."
"Forgive me," he said, bowing to her. "I should return to Longbourn and assist Mr. Bennet. We have our own refreshments at the house. Would it be convenient if we both returned to collect Miss Bennet in a little over an hour?"
Charlotte's crooked grin nearly made her friend blush. "Oh, an hour will do, I suppose," she acceded.
When Mr. Darcy had alighted again to the seat and signaled the team to turn about, Charlotte fixed her eyes meaningfully on Elizabeth and began to lead her toward the house. "Elizabeth, there is much I wish to know, if you would indulge me," she prompted.
Elizabeth did not blush as she regarded her friend. As they passed together into the entryway of Lucas Lodge, she did, however, lift an eyebrow at Charlotte's unrestrained curiosity. "You shall not be disappointed, for I confess that was a part of my design in coming," she explained. "Ask away -- for I shall tell you all."
Charlotte motioned for her to turn around as she helped Elizabeth to remove her wrap and spencer. "It may be difficult for us to be alone to share our confidences until after I have helped Mother serve the tea," Charlotte advised her in a whisper, "for as you know, Mr. Collins is -- "
"Ah, there you are, Miss Lucas!" exclaimed the very object of their discussion, meeting them in the foyer and bowing with effusion. "And, dare I presume, that your companion is one of my fair cousins, whom you have been awaiting?"
"It is, indeed, sir," said Charlotte, recovering herself with good grace. "Mr. Collins, may I present my dear friend, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of the daughters of Longbourn House."
As Elizabeth performed her courtsey, she observed Mr. Collins as he swept his wide frame into a bow. She felt no astonishment in her discovery that her father's summation of the man was entirely correct, for she detected such a lack of sense, marked with sufficient puffed-up self-importance, as to render him an utterly comical and even pitiable character. In looks, he was almost exactly what she had expected: plain and broad-faced, on a larger scale than her father, and much younger, but without the benefit of physical grace which the vigor and athleticism of youth often render to younger men. As he righted his stodgy, rather portly frame, she had to hide a smile, for she saw at once that he was taking her measure as well -- and was eminently more pleased with what he saw.
"Miss Lucas has done me the honor of describing yourself and your sisters to me, Miss Bennet," said he, nodding in a rather grandly condescending fashion to Miss Lucas. When he again recovered his breath, he continued, "Although I certainly never doubted her -- all honesty and goodness that she is -- I am nevertheless delighted to find her rendering of you remarkably accurate. You are uniformly charming!"
Seeing that her houseguest was in danger of embarrassing her friend, Charlotte stepped forward. "She certainly is, sir. Now that you have made each other's acquaintance, may I have the pleasure of inviting you all into the drawing room for tea? We may converse more comfortably there."
With great alacrity and a plentitude of affable words, Mr. Collins accepted her invitation, and they all sat down together as the tea things were set out. Charlotte and Lady Lucas and Mr. Collins all declared themselves in turn vastly happy to see Elizabeth looking so well, and before Elizabeth had touched her food, the conversation launched itself forward as questions about the fire, both delicate and indelicate, were laid before her by Mr. Collins and, from the corner, an anxious and surprisingly talkative Maria Lucas.
Elizabeth did her best to answer them all with tolerable equanimity, but Mr. Collins' frequent interjections chafed at her nerves.
"Such a frightful thing to happen!" he declared, once she had finished telling them all of how Kitty, once they were safely outside, had struggled to breathe and given them many sleepless hours during that first night of their refuge at Netherfield. "But you must have both felt such gratitude to Mr. Darcy, who in his generous condescension, risked his life to bring you from the house, and to Mr. Bingley, who threw open his doors to bring you into his home. Not that such behavior by gentlemen is unexpected, and especially, of a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is in all circumstances the most amiable, helpful, and obliging."
Charlotte watched her friend blush as Elizabeth replied, "Yes, we are greatly indebted to Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. We are very blessed by our attentive neighbors, who are such fine gentlemen indeed."
"I am glad that they both have garnered your esteem, Eliza," said Charlotte slyly. She smiled as she sipped the last of her tea, and set it aside with an impatience Elizabeth had never seen in her friend before. "Now, all this talk of the fire must have you anxious for fresh air, my dear friend. Would you take a turn in the garden with me?"
Elizabeth knew at once what Charlotte had engineered in her offer. "But of course! Nothing would satisfy me better," she complied happily, rising immediately and making a curtsey to Lady Lucas and her company.
"Mr. Collins," said Lady Lucas, also seeing some artfulness in her daughter, and, seeing it justifiable, acted to assist it. "While the girls are out for a few moments, could you tell me what a clergyman would be expected to do, should such a fire ever happen within his parish? I know our local rector has called on Mr. Bennet at Netherfield -- "
Elizabeth and her friend had already made their happy escape, and were out laughing breathlessly in the garden in the next few moments.
"What pure genius, Charlotte!"
"I fancy myself clever on occasion, though not as often as you," she quipped, equally delighted by her scheme's success. "Now, Elizabeth, you must reward me for my efforts. Do be serious, and tell me more. What has happened at Netherfield since you came there? What of Mr. Bingley and Jane? And what of you and your solicitous Mr. Darcy?"
"Such an inquisition! May I beg your leave to answer one question at a time?"
"Only if you accede to answering them all," Charlotte returned with a smile.
"I see," said Elizabeth, walking to the bench near the recently pruned rose bushes and settling herself down. "Prepare yourself for some shocking revelations, then, if I am to answer each one in full."
Charlotte sat next to her and took her hand. "I shouldn't demand it all of you, if any of it is painful in the telling," she amended.
"None of it is too taxing now. The worst of it, at any rate, I have already told you. When we arrived at Netherfield, it was quite late, as I said, and I daresay Miss Bingley was quite put out to have all of us invading her household - with Jane and I returning a second time. She had only just gotten rid of us! But Mr. Bingley -- oh, Jane is so smitten, and for good reason. He stayed on for hours that night as fire marshal at the house, while Jane and I stayed up with Kitty at Netherfield after Mr. Darcy had helped us get her to bed -- "
Charlotte gasped. "Mr. Darcy was in her bedroom at Netherfield?"
"All of Mr. Bingley's servants were at Longbourn helping with the fire, with the exception of the maids. And my poor father could hardly have carried her all the way up the stairs at his age, and with such horrible coughing as he suffered that night. As Mr. Hurst was nowhere to be seen -- likely asleep in his cups, I daresay -- it all fell to poor Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth explained. "He had to carry her in from the carriage and bring her up the stairs to the sickroom himself. Once Jane and I had tucked her into bed, he then fetched water for us so we could care for her better. Truly, he was very kind to act in the role of manservant for us."
"I am sure he was. But you, my poor Eliza! How miserable you must have felt that night, with your injuries so fresh. I had forgotten to ask you about your feet and your hands -- or was it the one hand? Are you truly better now?"
"I am better, as you see. And it was only this hand that was slightly burnt," she said, holding it up. "But my feet were in bandages until yesterday evening. The first night, they were hot to the touch, and not painful, as such. I suppose I was still in a state of shock, now that I revisit it. But Mr. Darcy brought liniment for me directly from Mr. Jones, who was much needed by Kitty first and foremost that evening, and by my father, too. Mr. Jones could only examine me the next morning."
"Oh? And at what hour did Mr. Darcy bring you this liniment?" pressed Charlotte.
"Very late indeed, but that was the nature of the night. We were all awake at odd hours."
"I see. And has he been asking you about your burns every night and every day since then?"
"He has not asked directly, as that is not his way," said Elizabeth, rather surprised that she had learnt this much of his reticent style of communication already. "But he has attended - much as he did that night when your family hosted dinner here, and he listened to my conversation with Colonel Forster."
"-- And he watched you closely all that night. Yes, I remember it very well," finished her friend in some satisfaction at the recollection. Charlotte then smiled in such a conspiratorial fashion at Elizabeth that she could not help but roll her eyes at the impertinence.
"A pair of burned feet and the resultant hobbling about do not make a woman most attractive to a man, dear Charlotte. I declare you are getting carried away with all your notions! Mr. Darcy has indeed been very kind and, on that evening, quite gallant; I expect nothing more from him than that, so far as civility and charity will carry him."
"Then you are a simpleton indeed, Elizabeth, for what man can resist a pretty damsel in distress?"
Elizabeth shook her head mutely, smiling in wry disbelief.
Observing her silence, Charlotte granted her friend a reprieve. "Very well, I suppose he did not have much opportunity to see you at your disadvantage. Were you long laid-up in bed with your feet bound in bandages?"
"Oh, no," Elizabeth admitted. "For you know me well, Charlotte. I cannot keep to a sickbed, so I did my best to hobble to dinner the very next night, whether it proved wise of me or no."
"That must have been quite painful for you."
Elizabeth blushed at the memory of the discomfort. "I confess it was," she offered, and again was silent, staring down at her hands.
Elizabeth's countenance was so downcast that Charlotte felt some real anxiety for her friend. "Did you make it through dinner?" she asked gently.
"Oh, yes, but it was Miss Bingley's conversation afterward which made me suddenly more aware of the severity of my injuries. I begged Jane to help me escape upstairs." After this cheeky confession, her face clouded once more, and further powers of speech, again, failed her.
Charlotte patted her hand and attempted to understand her normally lively friend's silence. "I daresay traversing stairs would be intolerable for me, if my feet were so badly burnt. However did you manage?"
"Oh, Charlotte!" her friend exclaimed, covering her face.
Charlotte knew at once that she had touched upon the source of Elizabeth's silence. "Whatever is the matter?" she said, with great concern.
"Only this -- that I was very foolish in trying to do so much that night. I wound up bleeding as I attempted to climb the stairs, and so Jane and my father had to assist me, and even then, it was such a painful process, that Mr. Darcy . . . intervened."
Charlotte shifted forward in her seat, all anticipation. '"Intervened' in what manner?" she pressed.
Elizabeth flushed crimson. "You will be quite shocked by it."
"I think I have already deduced it. You certainly did not flinch when he helped you down from the driver's platform today. Was this not the first time he has had to lift you, Elizabeth?"
"It was not," confirmed Elizabeth quietly. "My father decided that Mr. Darcy was very sensible to offer to carry me up the staircase."
"Oh, Elizabeth! This is above everything!" exclaimed Charlotte, clapping her hands and jumping to her feet. "You transport me to romantic thinking, which is not often done. So, on this rare and momentous occasion, you must and shall tell me all!"
"There is not much to tell, Charlotte. I was irritated at his officiousness at first, but as I realized how very easy such a chore was for him, and since he would keep me distracted by talking to me of Longbourn while I was aloft, it was not so trying as it might have been."
'"Not so trying!'" teased her friend. "No, I daresay being carried up a marble staircase by a handsome young gentleman who was too enamored to let a footman touch you -- and I am certain there were plenty of Mr. Bingley's men to be found on that occasion -- was not so very trying at all."
Elizabeth blinked as if blinded for a moment, for her mind had produced such a sudden assault of sensory memory -- the overwhelming impression of his close, warm scent -- that she could do naught but shake her head at her friend. Once she had recovered, she demurred quietly, "He is not enamored, Charlotte."
Charlotte felt herself to be secure where she felt her instincts to be correct. Her wit, made effervescent through triumph, flowed long. "But you made a very pretty picture sitting on that coachman's seat together as you drove up my front drive. And now he is back at Longbourn, helping your father manage the estate; I would not be surprised if his next strategy was to find a way to introduce you to his relations, if there are any to be had in the vicinity; and before you know it, I shall be very satisfied indeed to learn that his courtship of you has neatly ended, and you have accepted him."
"Charlotte!" gasped Elizabeth, thinking of Miss Darcy's letter with some new wonder, and then censuring herself. "That sort of speculation is not amusing! I hope you will be satisfied only to learn that I do not dislike him nearly as much as I have done these past weeks, and that he seems to have forgiven me my deficiencies as well, for the present. You and I both know very well that he cannot intend to pursue me, as he certainly has no interest in my merely 'tolerable' looks, and knows likely to the last farthing how little I now have left to my name."
"And what is a farthing, more or less, to a man of his great fortune?" returned Charlotte. At her friend's exasperated look, she amended, "Oh, have it as you will, Elizabeth. I will tease you no further. I suppose I must content myself, at the present, to learn merely that your opinions of each other have bettered themselves."
"Thank you. Now that you have finished your examination of the matter, do you think we ought to go back inside?" She had at first been tempted to talk to her friend of Mr. Wickham, but seeing now that Charlotte would take such a conversation as further proof that Elizabeth's own interests in Mr. Darcy were developing, she thought it best to abandon such a topic before she had begun.
"I hardly think it necessary, unless you wish to take more proper leave of Mr. Collins. For out here, we can stand watch for your Mr. Darcy to return to carry you off again."
"Charlotte!" cried Elizabeth, feeling suddenly quite hot. "He is not 'my' Mr. Darcy! For Heaven's sake!"
"Do lower your voice. I was only teasing you! But I see I have hit upon something, and will therefore be silent -- for now. Come, let us go inside, and you may take a proper leave if you wish. If I am not mistaken, I hear a carriage coming down the lane, and we shall soon have the gentlemen upon us."
The carriage was forced to wait for Elizabeth, for, in spite of her alacrity to have the niceties completed, Mr. Collins detained her in the sitting room during her leave-taking to express how much his anticipation of their coming dinner at Netherfield -- in only a few short hours -- had increased since the happenstance of their meeting. As he said this, he gave her such a fawning smile, and such a determined glance, that she felt a little ill as she responded with her own far less effusive regards and made her curtsey.
Her father stood by the carriage door to hand her in, while Mr. Darcy tipped his hat to her from his position on horseback as postilion. It seemed the carriage would contain only father and daughter on their return to Netherfield, which suited Elizabeth's frayed nerves rather well as she rolled away from Charlotte's altogether too-knowing smile.
*tiger, n. - "A boy employed as a cute groom to ride on the back of a curricle or other small carriage. The name tiger derives from the yellow and black striped waist coat worn by these grooms." (Definition courtesy of The Georgian Index)
Posted on: 2013-02-23
Netherfield was quiet when they returned, for the Bennet ladies had retired to dress carefully for dinner after having spent part of their day being entertained by Mr. Bingley and his sisters. Elizabeth, tired and sooty, likewise made her way upstairs to her chamber to take off her boots, apply more liniment to her feet, and wash and change. But upon entering the room, she found their little maid somewhat at odds in facing the task of readying (with such a scarcity of proper clothing and accessories!) so many ladies for dinner in time for the event, which would take place more than an hour hence.
Elizabeth divested herself of her boots with only a little discomfort and availed herself of the ewer and stand in the corner of the room, using Miss Bingley's expensive rose-oil soap to wash her face, neck and hands, and otherwise refresh herself as thoroughly as she could in the cold water. She reconciled herself to the understanding that a bath would have to wait until after dinner, much as she desired one now.
With her hair still slightly wild from her travels, and some old satin slippers and a fresh dinner gown on, Elizabeth slipped from the room so that their maid could continue to attend to Jane's hair while Mrs. Bennet hovered anxiously, directing the harried abigail on how best to arrange her eldest daughter's coiffure to please Mr. Bingley.
Seeking solace and a chance to lie down until she could claim the maid to help with her own hair, Elizabeth sought the lonesomeness of the library. Finding it empty, she shut the door behind her, sighed deeply, and picked restlessly through the books until she came across a recent Examiner tucked between two rough old volumes. Amused at the radical publication's presence in an otherwise unremarkable collection of literature, she took it with her to the settee facing the window on the far wall. As she relaxed in the late afternoon sunlight, she gave in to the temptation to pull her feet up onto the seat and recline as she read, secure that the high back of the settee would guard her from the view of others who might enter the door behind her.
While she idly flipped through the publication, her mind focused on a blot of darkness on the edge of one page, which looked to her like soot. Self-consciously, she checked her own fingers for the offending digit, but then reminded herself that she had scrubbed herself yet again since returning from Longbourn. But now the damage had been done; she could not focus on her reading, but instead, thought with some anxiety about the coming months of hard work and expense needed to set their home to rights. She dwelled on these anxious mediations for longer than she thought, closing her eyes at last in some exhaustion against the waning sunlight where it slatted across her face through the panes.
Voices in the hallway approached and receded, then approached again, some raised in frustration (her mother's voice) and anxiety (her sisters' voices) as Elizabeth missed their entreaties for her to show herself and come prepare for dinner. Minutes later, a click resounded as the doorknob turned, and the firm tread of a gentleman's steps followed. But Elizabeth lay trapped in a dream, and far from hearing it all.
Mr. Darcy had his suspicions that Elizabeth, missing for roughly an hour, had likely turned to the library in search of quiet. But he frowned as he glanced around the room, unable to see evidence of her presence. That was until he noticed the sun's last beams bending through the window and reflecting an auburn tone as they caught upon a lock of brunette hair curled against the arm of the settee that had the broad side of its back to him.
Not wishing to startle her, he came softly around the side of the settee, all the while smiling to himself at the realization that her seemingly boundless energy had its limits. It was good that she was resting after their outing; it had been an eventful one for him, as well.
His smile only grew when she was finally whole within his sight. Reclining in a most unladylike, yet wholly feminine way, Elizabeth lounged deep in slumber upon the cushions with her feet drawn up against the opposing arm of the settee. Her serene face was wreathed in the sunset's glow from the window. The rosy light thereof leant her skin a pink tinge of good health that he could not help but appreciate at an atavistic level, and the softly suffusing shadows and her position gave him an excellent view of many of her finest features, including the dusky eyelashes he had so long admired, and, to his more recent discovery, her lovely decolletage and the delicate, curving edges of her collarbones, leading into the shades of her shoulder and down the gathered darkness in the dip of her waist, and thence to the brighter convexity of her shapely hip and thigh.
Tearing his eyes away from her pleasing figure, he noticed that she had pressed a magazine to her breast in her sleep, and his curiosity ignited. Stealthily, he held his breath as he bent nearer to discover its title. He was instantly diverted by her choice in reading material, for he knew well the progressive and wittily effete essays in that issue of The Examiner. But underneath his amusement, he found he was not surprised that she could follow the erudite banter of so many intellectual minds crammed on the ragsheet.
Smiling, he drank in the pretty picture she made, nestled in sleep on the small couch. It had been a long and trying day for her, he reflected, and the evening to come would only hold more trials for her, considering the Bennets' intended dinner guest.
That thought reminded him of his duty. He ought not linger here, when her family was looking for her, and where she was in such a compromising position. And it ought not be he who awakened her, for it would only cause her embarrassment. It would be best to find one of her sisters directly.
He turned carefully on his heel, ready to retreat in stealth, when Elizabeth exhaled sharply. Instinctually, he froze on the spot and returned his eyes to her, warily searching for signs of her awareness.
Her eyes remained closed, and her body, once her sigh subsided, retained its stillness. But her face, at first so peaceful, had transformed into an expression of pain and anxiety such as he had never thought to see her wear.
As he watched, her brow contracted, her lower lip quivered, and from the corners of her eyes, tears began to gather and shimmer on her closed lashes. As they came together, they fell, just as the room gave way to greater darkness as the sun dropped beneath the boundary of their world.
Mystery though the contents of her dreams were to him, it was clear that they had now taken a decidedly unpleasant turn. As he watched her breath catch in her sleep-muted throat and release in a silent sob, the rigidity of his posture became like cold iron under the shock of her obvious distress. He knew what such a situation demanded of him as a gentleman: he ought to immediately fulfill his intended quest to find her sister -- the preferred sister being Jane Bennet -- and bring her quickly to awaken and attend Elizabeth.
But for the life of him, he felt himself unable to leave her now. Not when the tears began to slide down her alabaster cheeks, pale with the new rising of the moon outside the window. And certainly not when she began to tremble from an onslaught of invisible terrors.
The new darkness made him bold. Hesitantly, he moved within arm's reach of her, drawing in a breath. Extending his hand, he drew the backs of his fingers quickly but gingerly down her shoulder to her bare, warm forearm before withdrawing instantly, for her response to his touch was immediate, albeit uncomprehending. The muscles of her frame locked, then released, as her eyes, dewy and dark, flew open.
He met her bewildered gaze uncertainly and bowed, not able to think of any posture less intimidating. In soft tones, he pronounced her name and his guilt. "Miss Bennet, forgive me."
She sat up hastily as the shadows stretched in her vision for a long moment. And then she managed to ask, "Forgive you? Why?" without knowing much of what she said.
"I should have brought your sister to you to awaken you. You were in the obvious clutch of some kind of pavor nocturnus -- completely understandable, given today's events. You were most distressed, and I took it upon myself to release you."
Elizabeth blinked and felt warm tears on her face, unable to escape the fragments of her dream episode: Longbourn near collapse; her father's ashen face; her sisters, pitiful and hungry and watchful; herself, useless and helpless to aid them. Closing her eyes, she drew a breath.
When she opened her eyes again, they grew wide with dawning alarm as she noted the moonrise. "Pavor diurnus, you mean," she corrected his Latin with regret, speaking almost to herself. "I have slept the daylight away! Is it not time for dinner?"
"It is," confirmed Mr. Darcy, producing a handkerchief and handing it to her.
Wordless in her embarrassment, she took the bit of silk he offered. Mr. Darcy noted that, although she was fighting for composure, she seemed still somewhat enthralled to the dark dream she had just escaped. As he watched her touch her face with his handkerchief with a shaking hand, he continued, "Before you join the others, may I bring something for you? Perhaps a glass of wine; shall I get you one?"
"No, no," she demurred, continuing to dab her damp face with the cloth. "I am well."
She shook her head. "No -- that is not -- unless -- " Here, she paused, and patted her hair, finding several pins loose and recalling that she had not yet rearranged it. With a chagrined expression, she looked up at him as he shifted from foot to foot in the pale light from the moon-bright window. "Do I look dreadful, Mr. Darcy?"
The blunt question forced him to check an unexpected laugh. Composing himself, he shook his head and answered, "You never look 'dreadful,' Miss Bennet."
She could not help herself, not now that the opportunity had arisen and she was awake enough to have her wits. His attempt at restraining a laugh -- and she had seen him stifle it -- had been inducement enough to bait him a little. "Tolerable, then, I suppose? But not handsome enough to be tempting?" she sniffed, letting his handkerchief fall to her lap with a twisted smile as she nonchalantly fished out four loose hair pins from her nape.
Caught by her unmistakable wording as much as by her mystifying transformation from grief into self-assurance, Mr. Darcy grasped for some form of a response. After a beat of heavy silence, he offered gravely, "I hardly looked at you at the Assembly, if that is the conversation to which you refer. I ought never have uttered such an ill-considered remark, not even to keep Bingley's attempts -- "
She waved the white handkerchief dismissively like a surrendering flag before she handed it back to him. "I was teasing you, sir," she explained, forestalling his apologies, which she now realized she neither required nor desired. "But I think I can tell well enough that my appearance needs some attention before I present myself to those in the dining room. Since I find I have no time to go upstairs and properly have it addressed by a maid, could I trouble you to locate Jane for me? I daresay in mere moments she can put me to rights as no other creature can - and has likely been looking for me for some time, in any event."
Eager for both an occupation and a graceful exit, he bowed and immediately went to perform his task.
He found Jane listlessly pacing the hall upstairs, calling softly for her missing sister. With a nod and tilt of his head as a signal, he drew her worried eye. "I believe you will find your sister in the library, Miss Bennet," he informed her, once she had drawn near.
Her round, china-blue eyes lit with puzzlement and surprise. "Oh! Why, I looked there for her only ten minutes ago. Are you certain, sir?"
"Completely. I unwittingly discovered her on the settee. She," he paused, wondering how much to reveal, "-- seemed distressed. I offered to find you."
"I am glad you did," said Jane, and thanked him from her heart. She curtsied to him and at once turned to hurry down towards the library.
Mr. Darcy, already dressed for dinner, followed on her heels at first, then turned aside into the foyer, where many of their party were already gathered and had turned at his appearance.
He greeted his hosts and was at once arrested by Miss Bingley, who addressed him directly before he had advanced many steps.
"Well! I am glad she turned up at last!" cried that lady, upon hearing his good, though heavily edited, information. She came to claim his arm, and in more confederate tones, added, "It is abominably rude for a guest to make the food go cold. Mr. Collins has arrived, you see, and so we are all assembled. We may go now into dinner."
Mr. Darcy did indeed feel all the rudeness of the circumstance, but on the hostess's side. "Should the Miss Bennets not be escorted to the table? Miss Bennet has gone to attend her sister, who seems unwell."
Miss Bingley tutted. "They may escort each other, if they so choose."
He had no recourse but to acquiesce to the mistress of the house, and so went into the dining room with Miss Bingley's firm grasp on his arm keeping him captive. His mind, however, was free to think on the exchange of only some moments ago in the dimness of the library.
The sight of Elizabeth's tears had unnerved him, and although she had recovered her sportive manner soon enough, he found that his anxiety still sat stiffly in his shoulders as he took his seat at the table and awaited some sign of her.
Elizabeth and Jane did indeed walk in together some minutes later, and with surprising timeliness, for the soup had not yet been brought out.
She looked well; Darcy could see that Miss Bennet had done a marvelous piece of work in restoring order to Elizabeth's hair. He was content to go on admiring for a moment while Elizabeth was placing her napkin, when the matron of Longbourn turned on her daughter.
"Lizzy!" hissed Mrs. Bennet in sotto voice, just loud enough to make Darcy flinch across the table for Elizabeth's sake. Having arrested Elizabeth's attention, and indeed, half the room's, she proceeded to scold her. "Must you run wild so near to dinner? Gracious heavens, girl! Where have you been?"
"Mama," whispered Elizabeth back, but in tones so much more moderate that only her intended target could hear. "I was quite fatigued after my visit to Longbourn today. I did not mean to fall asleep in the library, and I am sorry for it, but I am well now."
Mrs. Bennet harrumphed in displeasure. "Well, you had best use the restorative to advantage. Be charming to Mr. Collins." The matron's voice was still loud enough for more than just Elizabeth to hear, and certainly enough to rouse the parson's invested attention.
"Cousin Elizabeth, how well you look this evening," said Mr. Collins from her other side. "I do hope you have recovered sufficiently from your outing today." His words themselves were gracious, but his manner was cozening as he leaned towards her.
Elizabeth took a breath before responding. "I am much better now, thank you. I apologize for being late, but it seems that the exertion took more of my strength than I anticipated."
The footmen came to the table bearing the soup course at that time, and Elizabeth rather hoped Mr. Collins would take the hint, and eat, rather than talk. But it was not so. The man was determined to do both, and nearly all at once.
"Marvellous soup!" exclaimed he to Miss Bingley, with the spoon just barely out of his mouth. "I daresay your cook is nearly so fine as those employed at my patroness's estate at Rosings."
Miss Bingley merely inclined her head at the poor compliment, for she, too, was occupied with eating, and was determined to show her superior breeding through ladylike silence.
Mr. Collins needed no further encouragement to embellish his speech. "It is a grand house indeed, and since coming to take up my appointment at the Parsonage this spring, I have had occasion to dine with the ladies of the house on no less than two occasions. Her Ladyship even condescended to send a note to me last Saturday to help her make up a quadrille. Such affability as I have enjoyed is beyond my expression!"
As he said this last, he favored Elizabeth with a smile, which she, with some anxiety, returned with a nod.
"That is all very proper and civil I am sure," said Mrs. Bennet encouragingly, for she had seen that Elizabeth was uncharacteristically quiet, "and I daresay Her Ladyship is a very agreeable woman. It is a pity that great ladies in general are not more like her. Does she live near you, sir?"
Mr. Collins's smile was wreathed with more pleasure than borrowed grandness should grant. "The garden in which stands my humble abode is separated only by a lane from Rosings Park."
Mrs. Bennet again looked to Elizabeth to further the conversation. Her daughter merely sighed silently in her seat as she nervously stirred her soup without so much as glancing up; so Mrs. Bennet, with more curiosity than the inquiry required, sallied forth again. "I think you said she was a widow, sir? Has she any family living with her?"
"She has one only daughter, the heiress of Rosings, and of very extensive property."
"Ah!" cried Mrs. Bennet, shaking her head, "then she is better off than many girls. And what sort of young lady is she? Is she handsome?"
Elizabeth set down her unused soup spoon and stared at her mother, as if seeing her as a stranger for the first time. How could she be so tactless?
Mr. Collins seemed pleased to be applied to for this information, which he provided after sending a meaningful glance at Mr. Darcy that made that gentleman clench his jaw. "She is a most charming young lady indeed. Lady Catherine herself says that in point of true beauty, Miss De Bourgh is far superior to the handsomest of her sex; because there is that in her features which marks the young woman of distinguished birth. She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her making that progress in many accomplishments which she could not otherwise have failed of; as I am informed by the lady who superintended her education, and who still resides with them. But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies."
Miss Bingley, whose careful observations of her object of desire did not allow her to miss the significant look her guest had directed to Mr. Darcy, nor his expression in response, roused herself to pursue the matter further. "Has she been presented?" she asked. "I do not remember her name among the ladies at court."
Mr. Collins' brow contracted under the burden of the unfortunate information he had to convey. "Her indifferent state of health unhappily prevents her being in town; and by that means, as I told Lady Catherine myself one day, she has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. Her ladyship seemed pleased with the idea, and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her."
Hardly surprised that his aunt would find such a sycophant as Mr. Collins to flatter and attend her whims, Mr. Darcy had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he pursued his hunger, and resolutely bent to finish his soup.
Elizabeth blushed for the idiocy so near to her in proximity, and blushed again when Mr. Collins shifted his chair a little closer to hers, and gave her another smile -- this one still slightly moist with soup.
But Mr. Bennet found much as a source of mirth, and began to give chase to what he anticipated to be a humorous subject. "I am sure you judge very properly," observed Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"
"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible." As Mr. Collins answered with this, he stole another bold glance at Elizabeth, which made her pause over her soup, and replace her yet again uneaten spoonful in the bowl.
Hungry as she had been upon awakening in the library, she had been unable to find any source of appetite at this most discomfiting of dinner parties. Her embarrassment at Mr. Collins' every word of imbecilic speech, compounded by his eye constantly roving in her direction as he spoke, had quite put her off her food.
At this most ridiculous pronouncement, Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered, and Mr. Darcy's, merely corroborated. The man was as absurd as either gentleman had heretofore considered, and the former listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, who seemed strangely silent, he proved himself to be requiring no partner in his pleasure.
Elizabeth's untouched bowl of soup was taken back up as the next course came out, and with it, Elizabeth sought for assistance to turn the conversation away from Mr. Collins' mortifying monologue of self-exposure.
She feared that her father would only encourage him to continue on in this ridiculous fashion--to her growing consternation-- so she looked to Jane for some assistance. Finding her pleasantly engaged with Mr. Bingley, and therefore of little help, she looked further down the table to where Kitty was coughing quietly while Lydia regaled her in bright tones once again about the foolishness of one of the officers at the evening at the Phillips'. Mrs. Hurst and Mr. Hurst merely seemed content in the prospect of the coming food. Miss Bingley looked upon all these proceedings with evident distaste, and Mary, to her other side, was patiently listening as Mr. Collins wore on, and Elizabeth knew that she was not likely to contribute in any meaningful way except to observe on some moral point of order. And so she looked across the table to her only other possible champion: Mr. Darcy, who had covered over his visage with his erstwhile expression of disdainful hauteur (which signified, she presumed, that he had absolutely no wish to further conversation with the parson) and would persist in abstinence from the exchange. Much as this frustrated her, she found she could hardly blame him for his cold silence.
Alas, she saw no source of aid. As she cast about in her own mind for some other answer, she discovered, to her chagrin, that her last reserve of mother-wit appeared to have abandoned her in her state of growing fatigue.
With a sigh, she took a sip of wine and tried to remove her thoughts from the table before her. Such an action was doomed to fail, however, now that she found herself the object of Mr. Collins' intense fascination.
For Mr. Collins, having already been given insight from Mrs. Bennet that the eldest Miss Bennet was likely to soon become engaged (indeed, once his eyes had been opened, he now flattered his own powers of observation that he clearly saw signs of it himself), had already determined that Elizabeth, the next in age and beauty, should succeed her elder sister in his attentions.
"Miss Elizabeth, have you much travelled beyond Hertfordshire?" he asked, with such eagerness that she could see no sense in forestalling him.
"I have not ventured far, Mr. Collins; I have been to London to visit my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, once during a recent Season, and many times throughout my girlhood at different times of the year. Beyond that, I confess that I have not had much occasion to stir from our little county."
"Ah, so you have never seen the beauties of Kent! Perhaps you will be extended the privilege someday, and you might then experience the beneficence of Her Ladyship for yourself. There are many beauties to be seen around the park, and the abode of Her Ladyship is simply exquisite, in addition to the hospitality of its mistress at her table."
Elizabeth's face went white at his insinuation. "I am sure, sir, that Her Ladyship is very gracious. But I could have no occasion to visit Kent."
Mrs. Bennet, who had been observing them closely, glared at Elizabeth upon hearing this discouraging denial, and shook her head at her daughter in silent disapproval, all while cutting her with her eyes. Elizabeth refused to shrink.
"You are very young, if you will pardon my saying so, Cousin -- if I may call you such," replied Mr. Collins, with an air of commiserating condescension and undue warmth. "There is much that life could bring to you yet, which the present would seem to offer up as fantastical. You may someday enjoy many advantages that you, in your modesty and simple upbringing, have not yet imagined or dreamed. Why, just four years ago, when I entered Seminary, I could never have conceived that I would someday be in the service of a lady of such eminence and nobility, nor that I would have such a comfortable parsonage and garden to call home, nor so many other Providential blessings as I now see fit to enjoy."
Here, he smiled at her, and in tones of familiar sympathy, added, "Indeed, I imagine you must feel a great deal of uncertainty in your present situation. Perhaps, in your current deprivation, you cannot fathom such security or bounty ever being offered to you."
In her mind's eye, Elizabeth saw the dark remnants of her dream: Longbourn a bitter, ashen shell; her father dying, wasted from the toil and grief of trying to restore it; her family, harrowed, hungry and spent, unable to survive the loss of home, protector, and provisions.
A cold sweat broke out upon her brow. She clutched the table edge, taking a breath, striving for control.
The remaining vestiges of fear from her bleak nightmare turned to anger at Mr. Collins' implications. As she seethed, she reasoned with herself that Mr. Collins had only foolishly awakened the monster of her greatest anxieties in an attempt to court her interest with his position as a potential provider. He surely did not mean to do her injury with his thoughtless talk.
This thought made her sink back in her chair with a defeated breath; as she released it, her vision unaccountably swam.
From across the table where he could silently catch some their exchange, Mr. Darcy saw Elizabeth's color drain from her face.
Mr. Collins, much nearer to her, also observed it. He wrung his hands, suddenly realizing his misstep. "My poor cousin! You do look unwell."
Elizabeth pressed a hand to her face unsteadily and replied tightly, "I -- I am unwell. Forgive me, Mr. Collins. I must excuse myself."
With that, she abruptly stood, curtsied, and, without meeting the shocked Miss Bingley's eye, turned from the table and went out into the hall.
The gentlemen, mostly caught too unawares by her sudden illness to have stood when appropriate at the signal of the young lady's going, found themselves in a flurry of shifting chairs in belated reaction, then frozen in various half-risen postures, looking at each other in surprise. Mr. Darcy was the only gentleman fully on his feet, although his expression bore its share of the general shock and confusion of his compatriots.
"Where did Lizzy go?" asked Lydia, speaking for the rest of them.
"She indicated that she was unwell," faltered Mr. Collins. "I -- We were speaking, and then her color changed -- "
"Was she faint?" asked Mr. Bennet.
Mr. Collins' befuddlement did little to stem his flow of nonsense. "My dear sir, I must confess I did not detect any signs of faintness, aside from her change in color --"
"Come, man, did she claim an ailment?" pressed Mr. Darcy, towering over the table.
Mr. Collins, appearing in contrast even smaller where he remained in his chair, mopped his brow, and then, distractedly, his mouth. "Not specifically. But I would speculate -- "
Jane then stood, causing every gentleman to rise all the way to his feet in response. Looking resolutely at her father, she announced, "I beg all of your pardon for my interruption. I am going to attend my sister. I will see what is to be done."
She found Elizabeth sitting on the staircase, her head in her hands and her cheeks quite white.
Jane sat down next to her sister to peer at her tired face. Finding that Elizabeth seemed unable, or unwilling, to meet her eye, she gently took Elizabeth's hand and found it unnervingly cold and clammy to the touch.
"Jane, what am I to do?" whispered Elizabeth miserably after some moments of silence.
"Do what, dearest?"she asked, touching her sister's pale cheek with her fingertips and finding tears.
Elizabeth took back her hand and began to wring her fingers together. "If we are unable to restore Longbourn -- if Papa loses a great deal of money in the attempt, and we fall into debt -- "
"It is possible, Jane. In fact, it is probable that we will have some substantial debts to repay." Elizabeth stared down at her empty hands helplessly. When she spoke again, her tone was dark and bitter. "Perhaps I ought to do this. Perhaps I ought to allow that odious man to court me -- to marry me. But by God, how I abominate the thought! Better that I had been turned to cinders in the fire." She was openly crying now.
Jane was alarmed. "Lizzy, no! You must not say such things! And as to a marriage that would make you unhappy: my dear, it will not come to that. Father will never allow it."
But Elizabeth continued to weep into her hands, causing Jane even greater anxiety. She had never seen her sister brought so low, nor seen her so seemingly fragile. She wrapped her arms around her, hushing her.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth quieted, then spoke. "I ought to go to bed. I should not let anyone see me like this."
"You are frightfully pale, Lizzy," Jane observed cautiously. "I shall go up with you."
"No, Jane, I am well." Elizabeth struggled to her feet, placing her hand on the stair rail.
She held in her dejected posture such an aspect of misery as Jane had never witnessed in any creature. As she watched Elizabeth suddenly go whiter, she grabbed her sister's arm to steady her, finding her flesh there, too, surprisingly cold.
Jane looked at Elizabeth with real alarm. "You are chilled through."
"I am not. But I am faint, if I am honest," said Elizabeth. "I cannot account for it, except that I have not eaten more than a pastry at breakfast and a few swallows of tea at the Lucases' -- I had no chance to eat with all their questions -- and I found I had no appetite just now with Mr. Collins' constant attention pressing in upon me. Just let me sit a moment, Jane. I will be well."
Jane helped to ease her sister to down to sit upon the step again. Then she straightened and placed her hand on Elizabeth's shoulder in a manner that brooked no argument. "You have overdone yourself, Lizzy. I must leave you now to call for a footman. Stay where you are."
"No! Jane, please! I can manage on my own. Just let me stay here a moment longer."
Jane's anxiety made her speak almost sharply. "I told you this morning that it was too soon for such an outing, did I not? Persist in this foolishness, Lizzy, and I shall fetch Mr. Darcy to carry you," warned Jane, finding in her threat all measure of seriousness.
"No! I shall be mortified if you trouble him again on my account. Please do not!"
"Then stay where you are!"
In a few minutes, Jane returned with a cordial young footman, and Elizabeth was obliged to take his arm as she progressed up the stairs. Jane followed for propriety, and once she had sat Elizabeth down and dismissed the footman, she shut the door and helped her sister undress.
"Don't worry about me, Jane," Elizabeth sister pleaded while Jane worked her buttons. "Return to dinner. I am well."
"You must rest, Lizzy; that much is certain. But you should take a little sustenance before you sleep. I will request for a maid to bring up a tray directly. Please, promise me that you will eat something and restore your strength."
After Jane laid aside her sister's gown, she turned back to Elizabeth and touched her under the chin, compelling her to meet her eyes. "Truly, Lizzy, I have never seen you thus. You are worrying me so."
Elizabeth, seeing the real concern in Jane's normally serene countenance, had little recourse but to give her promise.
Ten minutes saw the errand done, when their own little maid, Sophie, tapped upon the door. Elizabeth, feeling her exhaustion, bade her enter, rather than rising to answer it.
Sophie bustled in with a tray, angling her way into the room. "Miss Elizabeth, I hear you are unwell."
"Only foolish, Sophie. I have not eaten a proper meal today."
Sophie uncovered the tray. "I've brought some soup and some warm bread and butter, if that will satisfy."
Elizabeth nodded and admitted that it would be a fair deal better than an empty stomach. She availed herself of the repast, finding herself much hungrier once away from the cloying attentions of Mr. Collins. Afterwards, she quickly fell into the untroubled sleep of the truly weary.
Downstairs, the table was more subdued than when Elizabeth had left it. Jane had returned, and she assured those gathered that Elizabeth would be well, but that the events of the day had simply overwhelmed her too much for company. In her absence, the conversation turned to the subject of the Lucases and their hospitality, of Meryton and its surrounds, and unavoidably, back to Rosings again. But mercifully, the final course was served, and the sexes went to separate.
After finding himself in his noble aunt's absence to be the object of Mr. Collins' many impertinent compliments and fawning effusions, it was with no small sense of relief that Mr. Darcy was able to escape to the sitting room to rejoin the ladies at the end of a very long hour of separation. He and Mr. Bingley went immediately to Miss Bennet to seek word on her sister's condition.
"I have just been upstairs to observe her for myself," replied Jane. "I believe she has simply depleted her energy -- and forgotten to replenish it by eating much today. But now Elizabeth has eaten at last and fallen asleep. And I am relieved -- much relieved; for I have never seen her so far from herself."
"Did she have nothing served to her at Lucas Lodge? I am very surprised that Miss Lucas did not see to her friend's needs," observed Mr. Darcy in some concern.
"She was served, sir," answered Jane, "but the Lucases and Mr. Collins asked her so many questions during her visit that she found herself too distracted to eat."
His consternation was evident, though his words were few. "I see."
"But a night of sleep shall put all to rights, surely," added Mr. Bingley hopefully.
"Why, yes, Mr. Bingley, that is certain," replied Jane, favoring him with her smile. "Elizabeth has proven time and again that she is not formed for ill-body or ill-spirits. She has always been the strongest of us all." Jane then turned to Mr. Darcy with her gentle smile and added with real assurance, "I am sure she shall be quite well by the time she awakens tomorrow."
Darcy could harbor no doubts, now, as to Jane Bennet having some suspicion of his cherishing a tendre for her sister. But he was not yet willing to acknowledge the fact of it to others. He allowed Bingley to express his pleasure for him at her assertion of Elizabeth's good prognosis. Bingley spoke and beamed in relief; Mr. Darcy was more silent, yet more fervent, in his hopes.
Both men, however, were struck with silence and surprise when Jane's characteristically placid spirits suddenly seemed to fall.
With a drawn brow, Jane set down her teacup and confessed in a stricken voice, "I - I must confess that feel I have lately placed too much faith in Elizabeth's strength." She lowered her eyes before continuing, "I feel myself at fault for what happened today. It should have been I that accompanied our father today to Longbourn. Lizzy may be our bravest sister, but I am the eldest, and the household burdens of Longbourn should naturally fall to me when our mother feels unable to cope. I am -- I am to blame for allowing her to take this upon herself, to her detriment, while she is still recovering from her injuries."
"Miss Bennet -- " Mr. Bingley began to protest.
But Mr. Darcy broke in. "No one applied to your sister with this task, Miss Bennet. It was Miss Elizabeth's wish to go and be of use to your father, and you could hardly have swayed her from that desire."
Jane was firm in her contrition. "Perhaps not, but I could have easily accompanied her."
"She had others with her today," said Mr. Darcy. "Her father, for one; I, for another -- and Miss Lucas. We each trusted that your sister would apply her good sense to her self-care, and that the hospitality at Lucas Lodge would further relieve her. Whether you had attended her or not, the outcome may have been the same, regardless."
Jane again took up her teacup, and regarded Mr. Darcy over its rim. "I see what you are about, sir."
"You do?" he said in some surprise at her directness. Had Jane lifted one of her brows as she looked at him just now, she might have appeared as fair doppleganger of Elizabeth, poised in anticipation of an intense discourse.
"Yes," Jane said softly, lifting her eyes, but not her brows, to him. As he stared at her in the candlelight, the veneer of serenity fell away from her gaze, and her eyes seemed darker, deeper, and more wise than he had ever given them credit. "You wish to lay the blame upon the circumstances alone. But Elizabeth has been my charge almost since her birth. As an elder brother, I am sure that you understand the responsibility that I feel acutely for Elizabeth's welfare as an elder sister, which I shall continue to feel by instinct, regardless of any eloquent argument to the contrary."
Mr. Darcy's own eyes darkened, envisioning a shattered girl at Ramsgate. After a heartbeat and a breath to recover himself, he bowed. "Point well made, Miss Bennet; I understand you perfectly."
Posted on: 2013-03-08
Elizabeth awoke hungry and was confounded to discover by the darkness outside her window that it was still too early yet for breakfast. She took advantage of the quiet, however, by catching their maid as she refreshed the fire in the dark, and whispering for bath water to be sent up. Quietly, so as not to awaken Jane, she pulled on yesterday's day dress and removed to the gardens to await the sunrise.
She walked outside and entered what sailors have called the "nautical dawn"-- that time of day when the terra firma is dark, and only the sky and any reflective waters may display the coming light. Elizabeth stepped only a little ways into the darkling garden and stood, watching the clouds take color as the amorphous floral arrangements and hedges around her remained a silvered black. She did not wander farther, not trusting her feet to know the way without tripping.
So she stood and simply breathed in the clean air, enjoying the stillness and the contrasting sensation of her own breath's heat against the chill of the morning air upon her face.
A thrush awakened somewhere in the brush, and she heard it call softly. As she waited for another bird to answer, the sun continued its ascent, bringing with it a palette of golds and reds that lent more brightness to her surrounds. Shapes near her feet became distinguishable, then rendered with clarity and color.
She walked a little further, trailing her hands along the hedges and feeling the tenacious last vestiges of blooms and leaves with her fingers, which could also detect the stiffening effects of a light frost. Soon, all but the strongest of evergreens would be drab and colorless.
When she felt the first warm rays of true sunlight upon her face, remembrance of the routines within the human world returned to her. Rather than be discovered in yesterday's day dress with her hair in disarray, she turned to go back to her room. Her heart gave an aubade to the fragile beauty around her as she slowly walked back to the sleepy house and to her long-awaited bath.
She found Jane awake and sitting up in the bed, staring at the tub as the maid filled it. As Elizabeth set down her wrap, her sister turned to her. "Lizzy!" Jane whispered, smiling in greeting.
"Good morning, Jane. I hope Sophie did not wake you because of my request for a bath."
"I do not mind. How are you, my dear sister? Are you recovered?"
Elizabeth returned her sister's smile as she toed off her shoes. "I am. With a little breakfast after my warm bath, I believe I shall be as refreshed as I could ever hope to be."
"Then I am relieved. But -- oh! Do not tell me you wore that dress from yesterday to walk out this morning. It is filthy! Let me help you out of it."
With Jane's assistance, Elizabeth found herself soaking in the bath in mere moments. Soon, the last of the previous day's tensions began to leave her body as she aimlessly chased the slippery soap at the bottom of the basin with her foot.
She roused herself at the sound of her maid's voice. "Shall I wash your hair, Miss?" asked Sophie.
Elizabeth could not resist the offer. And so it was that while Jane attended her own toilette before the mirror across the room, Elizabeth reclined in the tub, tipping her head back as the gentle maid worked soap through her hair and rinsed it with a mixture of rose hip oil and diluted wine vinegar. After one more rinse of water, Jane came to the tub and helped her sister wrap her wet hair in a towel.
Once she had donned her robe, Elizabeth joined her sister before the fireplace. Then she stood still while Jane gently pressed the fragrant dampness from her dark curls, an act of service which the sisters had performed for each other since they were girls.
Elizabeth's voice came out muffled from underneath the towel. "Jane?"
"I hope I did not worry you with my behavior last night."
"I worried only for your happiness," replied Jane softly, stilling her hands for a moment as they wrung around the cloth. "I have never seen you cry so, not even when you were very small."
Elizabeth straightened and let the towel fall to her shoulders. Brushing her moist hair from her eyes, she confessed, "I worry for my happiness, too, Jane. But now that I have reflected on it, I have decided that I shall not be trapped into thinking the very worst until it comes. After all, even if I do marry Mr. Collins, I shall still have the grand expanse of Rosings Park to ramble in -- where I may become hopelessly lost. I shall be sure to do so frequently!"
"Oh, Lizzy!" laughed Jane, relieved to have her spirited sister restored to her.
With a renewed sense of energy, Elizabeth bounded down to breakfast an hour later. She was happy to find it a far more cordial event (due, no doubt, to the lack of Mr. Collins as an irritant) than the past evening's dinner. Her father was at table before her, as were Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, who rose and bowed over their coffee cups as she and Jane entered the room.
Elizabeth responded sweetly to the kind inquiries from Mr. Bingley as to her health, and smiled at his warmer greeting of Jane and his more intimate query regarding how well she had rested.
As Elizabeth moved to pour herself some tea, she met Mr. Darcy's dark gaze and knew that he was examining her for signs of lingering illness in his own quiet way. She had just favored him with a small smile and a raised brow to evince her good spirits when her father's voice captured her attention.
"Lizzy, my girl, I hope you have recovered from last night's attack of missish nerves?"
Elizabeth sighed, realizing that, in some ways, her father would never change. "Oh, Papa, you do not know how I suffered!" she teased back, imitating her mother's tones. "But in earnest, sir, I am well."
"I am glad to hear it," chuckled her father. "I could see you were quite spent."
"I was. But nearly ten hours' ample rest -- and quiet -- have put me to rights."
"I hope today's company shall suit your nerves better. Did you know that we expect your uncle Gardiner to arrive at the Phillipses' this afternoon?"
"I did know that he was to arrive today, but not precisely when," she replied, a smile growing upon her face as she stirred her tea and set it before her. "Might I not call upon our relations in Meryton before teatime this afternoon? I so long to see my uncle."
"I shall send a note to Mr. Phillips, if you like, and ask him to convey to your aunt that we should both like to attend," her father offered. "But you understand that your uncle would have only just disembarked. You ought not tackle him at once with too many inquiries. I am sure that his good counsel shall have time to touch upon every needful issue, once he has had sufficient time to recover from the road."
Elizabeth, although eager to see her uncle, had no intention of smothering him as her father supposed; but rather than correcting him, she merely asked, "Do you know how long my uncle intends to stay on with the Phillipses?"
"At least until Tuesday, I believe. At which time, he hopes to receive word from your aunt Gardiner that their home shall be ready to receive all of us in town. Then we may go down with him."
Across the table, Mr. Bingley's teacup clattered abruptly. "Shall you leave Netherfield so soon?" he asked with some anxiety, glancing from Jane to her father and back again.
"My good sir, you know we cannot trespass longer on your kindness," said Mr. Bennet with uncharacteristic gentleness, for he had found that his respect for Mr. Bingley had, in these past few days, quite unexpectedly grown. "Our family only wishes to give us their hospitality as an expression of their affection and care for us, which shall make our stay with them as pleasant as our quarters shall be snug."
"Indeed, we shall be quite a merry party at Gracechurch Street," seconded Jane with a smile at Mr. Bingley. With a blush, she added rather daringly, "Although we certainly have experienced every source of happiness and comfort at Netherfield with you as our host."
Mr. Bingley did manage a smile at her concession, but his bright eyes still shone with some disappointment. "Then I suppose I may only express that it is my hope that we shall meet again soon in town, when I return there near the Christmas Season."
Jane's complexion darkened, and her eyes raised to Mr.Bingley's with a tremulous hope. But the power of articulation utterly failed her; she could merely smile at his hopeful face.
"We shall meet gladly," said Elizabeth, sparing her sister.
At that moment, Lydia breezed into the breakfast parlour. "Well, I am glad you are better, Lizzy," she declared, flouncing into a chair next to Elizabeth. "What a frightful turn you had! I have never seen you look so ill. Not that I can blame you! Why, if Mr Collins was leaning over my -- "
"Oh, t'was nothing," Elizabeth said blithely and a little loudly as she buttered her toast, cutting off Lydia's indecorous remark. "I am taking my good medicine right now by piling my plate as high as it may go. And after I have had my fill, then I shall be more troublesome than ever. Would you like some of this toast?"
Lydia declined; but her sister, true to her avowed intention, and hungrier than her usual wont, finished her plentiful breakfast before Miss Bingley had even drifted down the stairs to greet her guests. Happy to forgo seeing her hostess, Elizabeth excused herself and went to find some quiet employment while her stomach settled.
As she wandered into a quiet sitting room, she espied the escritoire and, remembering that she was still a letter in Miss Darcy's debt, drew near to it and gathered some sheets of paper.
She stared at the blank pages for a moment, composing her thoughts, and then began by carefully addressing her missive with a direction that she now recalled from memory:
"Miss Georgiana Darcy
Berkeley Square, London"
The grandness of the locale to which her letter was destined did not escape her. But before any true feeling of intimidation could forestall her, the memory of the kind words of the shy girl who lived at such a fashionable address spurred her onward with some warmth and assurance:
"Dear Miss Darcy,
"I am a shameful correspondent to neglect for so many days my response to your extremely sweet letter. You words have won my gratitude and my frankness: I shall therefore confide to you all my thoughts upon receiving your note, and by these reflections, attempt to procure your pardon for my delay in answering you more promptly.
"When I first opened your letter, my surprise was quickly succeeded by my admiration for the warmth and kindness of your address, as well as by your eagerness to help a stranger so far removed from your acquaintance and sphere. The goodness of your brother's example has indeed been well represented by your charity and courage, Miss Darcy, and I find I am glad to know you, if only but a little, through our strange correspondence.
"And 'strange' would convention indeed deem it; and I knew it to be so upon my immediate receipt of your letter. In order to avoid giving any offense to your brother by accepting such a missive in secrecy, I looked for an opportunity to privately alert Mr. Darcy to the arrival of your letter and to ask for his permission to respond. He, being unable to deny you any pleasure (for is it not an elder brother's career in life to dote upon a baby sister?), acceded at once to my request and gave his support to our correspondence.
"For some days I kept and re-read your letter, and in those days, I recovered from my injuries, only to have my spirits sorely tested during a visit to examine the damage that had been done to our home. I spent most of the day there, taking note of what had been lost, and realizing that nothing shall ever be as before. Much of our inherited history, along with what little beauty there was, and many articles of dear memory have all been lost in the disaster, and I felt these components of myself to have vanished in the ashes as well.
"Despite my susceptibility to such crestfallen spirits, when I consider your words and my own heart-felt response to them, I must tell you what comfort I yet find in them. For, although I am tempted to feel quite small and diminished by this loss, I recall that I have been distinguished in a remarkable manner by the epistle of a lady quite unknown to me, and with such a determined boldness, that I cannot not but be flattered into thinking myself not quite so insignificant in the world. Your words have recalled me to my own importance and worth as a soulful being -- although I am not so perfect a creature as you seem to imagine! -- and I thank you for the reminder, the attention, and the kindness you have given me.
"Regarding your extraordinary offer of hospitality, I am exceedingly grateful, and happy to perceive in it the implication that you might wish to meet face-to-face. However, regarding my family's future lodgings, I must tell you that my uncle and aunt in London are anxious to open their home to my family and will do so very soon: next week, in fact. At such a time as this, I am sure you understand that the consolation of family is the spirit's greatest balm. I would, however, delight to presume upon your friendship by seeking a chance to call upon you while I am in town, even if I am not destined to stay on as your house-guest. I shall apply to your brother for permission to visit you whenever you, or he, may deem convenient. I am all anticipation to see you in person, where I may hope to shake your hand in true friendship, and afterward, tax you with my healthy appetite for conversation and laughter."
"Your friend in Hertfordshire, and soon, in town (at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner, Gracechurch Street, No. 86),
Happily occupied by her writing, she failed to notice the invasion of the little parlour by a creature altogether unexpected. For, before she had even breathed upon her pages to dry the ink, a dapple-eared dog had padded quietly into the room and come to sit at her feet. When Elizabeth began to fold her letter, the thump of his tail on the floor alerted her to his presence.
"Why, hello," greeted Elizabeth, smiling and reaching down to pat the friendly animal. Recognizing her companion as the one with whom she had passed a playful morning near Mr. Bingley's orchards a se'ennight ago, she scritch-scratched along the furry pathway down the line of his spine and asked, "How did you come here -- Caesar, is it?"
Mr. Darcy's hound rose to his feet in order to better express his delight at her attention with such wagging and frisking as betrayed all his pleasure. Elizabeth laughed at his antics but feared for the fine furniture of the parlour as he pranced about, heedless of Miss Bingley's expensive arrangements and delicate displays.
"My dear Caesar, shall we not go outside? If you will wait for me but one moment, I shall gather my boots and spencer and give this letter to a footman to post. Then we may romp in the fields. Shall you stay until I fetch you?"
Caesar, hearing in the tone of her voice some offer of exciting merit, barked his immediate encouragement and assent.
Elizabeth sealed her letter, rose, and turned from the room with Caesar pattering behind her. As she reached the stairs, she hesitated, debating as to whether or not the animal might be permitted so near the families' sleeping quarters.
"Caesar, you must stay here. Stay!" she urged him, putting out her hand as a gesture.
Caesar licked her hand.
"No, boy. Here--sit. Sit!"
Elizabeth nodded. "Good boy. Stay!"
Examining the hound and finding that Caesar was somewhat calmer, and still sitting, she began to skip up the steps to gather her things from upstairs. As she progressed upwards, her suspicions were stirred when she heard movement behind her echoing on the marble.
"No, boy! I said, 'Stay!'" she commanded, whirling on the step.
"If you insist, Miss Bennet," returned a surprised Mr. Darcy, putting up his hands in surrender and arresting his progress on the steps behind her.
"Oh! Forgive me, sir," Elizabeth apologized, her color rising at once in embarrassed apology. "I was speaking to Caesar."
"I believe you will find him obeying my orders and lying down, as I have found he has never shown the will to master the command to 'stay'," Mr. Darcy explained dryly.
"Ah," said Elizabeth, peering beyond and below Mr. Darcy to where the dog, indeed, was lying belly-down upon the cool marble of the foyer and peering up at both of them curiously. She glanced again at Mr. Darcy and bit back a smile as she recovered her wits and declared, "I cannot much blame him. I have never mastered that particular command myself. I was just heading out for a walk, and I was hoping to take Caesar with me on my jaunt, if he would await me."
Mr. Darcy nodded and ascended to the penultimate step below Elizabeth's, bringing his gaze nearly level to her own. His eyes moved searchingly over her face as he replied, "If you are indeed well enough for such an excursion, I am certain he would welcome the exercise." Here, he looked back at the hound, which returned his master's regard with raised ears and a thump of the tail. Elizabeth had followed Mr.Darcy's eyeline, and so was surprised to see that gentleman's stare return again to her with some swiftness as he continued. " -- As would I. May I accompany you, and perhaps keep your companion from running off into the next county?"
Elizabeth hid her astonishment at his request under a raised brow. "You may," she rejoined, "but if only if you will indulge me and explain why you think poor Caesar would ever feel the need to run away from me."
Mr. Darcy's reply was all seriousness. "Quite simply, madam, it is because you are not as challenging to catch as a rabbit, which has always proven a temptation to Caesar above all other things."
"You have never seen me run in open country, sir," she challenged, finding in his droll, factual tone a great temptation to shatter his levelness in laughter. "I may be every bit as swift as a hare."
Mr. Darcy did not laugh, but he did smile. "I shall expect you to be quick, then, as you gather your things," he returned smartly.
"I shall bound away soon enough, but I may be detained by one more errand," Elizabeth replied around a smile as she brought her letter-bound hand up between their faces. She fluttered her fresh missive teasingly in the air before her as though fanning her cheeks as she finished, "-- I must first post my letter to your sister, if she is to receive it by Saturday night."
As he registered her words and sighted the missive, the intensity of Mr. Darcy's gaze increased. So quickly that she had no time to react, he caught her hand by the wrist with a gentle but firm grasp. While she was shocked into stillness, he then neatly plucked the note from her suddenly slack fingers with his other hand.
Mr. Darcy smiled in triumph as he released her. "I shall post it now," he said lightly, saluting her with his prize. "Bingley's man is just around the corner."
Elizabeth forced down her confusion at his sudden playfulness -- for indeed, had she not wanted to rile him a little? Instead, she considered Mr. Darcy's concession to high spirits a small victory and allowed herself some satisfaction as she gave him her curtsey. "You had best hop to it, then, before I return," she challenged pertly, before she turned and sprinted up the stairs.
From below, she heard Mr. Darcy's quiet chuckle. She felt color fly into her cheeks, but she continued upward with a determined step, finding herself too fascinated by his sudden attentions to waste time questioning them.
She returned downstairs in her boots, hastily buttoning her gloves and tucking them into her spencer's sleeves. When she reached the bottom step, she found Mr. Darcy in the foyer in his own field boots, dropped on bended knee and vigorously scratching Caesar behind both flopping ears. Caesar seemed beyond elated at the attention; his expression was one of ecstasy as his tongue lolled past his teeth and his tail churned enthusiastically upon the floor.
Hearing her step, Mr. Darcy drew to his feet, and Caesar looked up in abrupt confusion, only to have his pleasure return in full tail-wagging measure at the sight of Elizabeth in outdoor clothing.
Mr. Darcy opened the front door, and his faithful hound, requiring no further invitation, ran out immediately. Elizabeth smiled and hurried out after him, leaving Mr. Darcy to follow.
Caesar ventured to the nearest tree to sniff out a suitable toy, and, pawing at a loose stick on the ground, fitted it to his mouth and bounded to Elizabeth, whining in anticipation.
Glad to have a companion of boundless energy with which to share some of her own, Elizabeth bent to snatch the stick, throwing it some distance ahead. Before she and Mr. Darcy had progressed many more steps, however, Caesar had already retrieved it and come padding back to them.
Ignoring Elizabeth this time, the dog came to his master and gave him a look expressive of playful defiance while tauntingly chomping on his prize and prancing alongside Mr. Darcy's flank, just out of his master's reach. Mr. Darcy's gloved hand shot out to take hold of the stick, but Caesar nimbly dodged to the side, instigating a pursuit that was short-lived, as the gentleman's long stride and swift hands enabled him to capture the stick again and pull it from Caesar's bared, growling teeth.
The growl transformed into an excited yelp as Caesar's master waved the stick before his hound's nose. "You want a challenge, don't you, boy?" teased Mr. Darcy.
Caesar barked again, circling his master's legs. Elizabeth hid a smile behind her gloved hand and matched their pace, absorbed in the spectacle of their playful camaraderie.
Mr. Darcy wound back and pitched the stick nearly twice the distance Elizabeth had, and they both looked on in amusement as Caesar tore up the ground running after it.
Turning to her, Mr. Darcy asked, "Should we take to the path, Miss Bennet? Caesar will follow us."
"I should be glad to. With the winter frost nearly upon us and my family leaving soon for London, I fear this may be my last opportunity to tour this park in mild weather for quite some time, if not forever."
"The weather is remarkably fine for mid-November, I grant you," said Mr. Darcy absently, as he watched Elizabeth fiddle with the ribbons on her bonnet. "I have not observed any signs of frost as of yet."
Elizabeth, having retied her ribbon, turned now in her secure bonnet and faced the sun. "I found traces of it earlier this morning when I ventured out at sunrise," she asserted mildly, having no real desire to challenge his observation.
Mr. Darcy touched the brim of his own hat in acknowledgement and lowered it slightly against the pale light. "Will you miss such morning outings when winter comes?" he asked.
Elizabeth smiled to herself. "I always do; I am not suited to indoor confinement, stale fires, draughts by windows, and cold feet on every floor. I have thought sometimes that I should seek a tropic clime by working my passage to India and giving some emigrated British girls on a plantation there a very unconventional version of an English education."
Mr. Darcy gave her a puzzled brow. "Do you imagine that you might serve then as a governess, or open your own school?"
"Oh, I should start simply, I expect, and work as a governess. One cannot found a school without gaining a reputation of some kind first."
"You sound as though you have given this some thought," he said in some surprise, just as Caesar caught up to them.
Elizabeth reached down and, grabbing hold of one end of Caesar's stick, gave it a tug. She gritted her teeth as the dog put up a growling resistance, and so her words came out broken as she explained, "I have thought of it more often in recent days especially, I confess. It has not escaped me that I do my family very little good" -- here, she paused for breath as she fought against the dog's brute strength -- "going on as I have been. I promised myself long ago that I shall not marry, except for the deepest of affection. But what good shall I serve as a spinster and an additional mouth to feed, especially in such times as my family will face, when funds shall soon be needed to restore our home?"
She surprised herself by confiding this. Yet she found, on this remarkable morning, that Mr. Darcy's laconic nature and unusually relaxed manner invited her speech, almost too unguardedly.
Frustrated and embarrassed at herself, she wrenched the stick free and threw it forcefully into the hedge. Caesar barked sharply and dove in after it.
Mr. Darcy observed Elizabeth with some bemusement. As she crossed her arms across her chest and continued walking, he fell quietly into step again beside her.
"I feel I should apologize," she said, after they had gone some way in silence. "I am speaking out of my anxieties and acting out of turn. I have often envied men their ability to make their own way in the world, and I sometimes find fault with both the world and myself in turns for having not been born to different circumstances, or for not having been presented with other opportunities regardless."
"We, none of us, can control the first assets granted us by fate or Providence," observed Mr. Darcy. "But you have acted as well as you can -- and have already been of great assistance to your father. There are many women who would not have taken upon themselves as much as you have done."
"I could take on more," Elizabeth insisted. "I simply lack the courage to do it. I should, sensibly, either face the lot that has been cast for me, and throw myself to the winds of fate and make my own way, or sacrifice myself in another manner that might better benefit my family."
What 'sacrifice' Elizabeth referred to with such dread, Mr. Darcy almost feared to imagine. As he waited for her to expound, his dog once again came trotting back up to them.
With an almost mournful expression, Elizabeth bent down and patted the felt-like fur on Caesar's knobby head. "Why cannot mankind be like the creatures of the earth, and merely do as Nature would intend for us every day? Do you think Caesar ever wonders about his future, Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy shook his head. "Not for a moment."
"I am frightfully jealous of you, Caesar," Elizabeth said softly to the dog, laughing ruefully at herself. Caesar did not take much notice of her words, lost as he was to everything but his pleasure while Elizabeth rubbed his ears vigorously, as she had seen Mr. Darcy do.
Mr. Darcy stood aside watching their exchange until Elizabeth again began to walk and Caesar came to him for more attention. Mr. Darcy took control of the stick this time, and after weighing it in his hand, let it sail into the air far ahead of them. Elizabeth did not watch where it landed; she retreated into her thoughts once more as both dog and projectile flew past her.
"India is not so hospitable as you seem to imagine," said Mr. Darcy suddenly. "It is often miserably hot. There is typhoid and a plentitude of other strange diseases you will not find on common English soil; moreover, the snakes, tigers, and elephants are a constant hazard to human life."
"How do you know? Have you ever been there?"
"No, but my cousin Richard has. He is a colonel in His Majesty's Army. I am sure he could speak to you on the subject far more fluently than I, and with greater objectivity."
Elizabeth nodded. "I am sure he could. But if he is off fighting against Napoleon in some campaign, I doubt I shall meet with your cousin very soon."
"He will be on leave a week before Good Friday. I am sure he will come then to visit Georgiana in town. If you still remain there at that time of year, my sister and I will be pleased to introduce you."
"I would be glad to make his acquaintance," replied Elizabeth with a smile, before adding with some wonder, "and I think it very kind of him to visit his little cousin so directly upon his return."
"My cousin and I share guardianship of my sister, and have done so since my father's passing some five years ago," explained Mr. Darcy. "His affection for Georgiana has always been genuine, and at times, his protective feelings towards her even more fervent than my own."
"That inclination must come as part of one's duty as a soldier," mused Elizabeth, trying to envision what such a sheltered creature as Miss Darcy might ever need protection from. "A good colonel will always imagine, and prepare for, the worst in any situation -- just as he must do before he sees each battle."
"Would that his fears were only imagined," muttered Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth stopped suddenly, her curiosity ignited by his wayward comment. "Was she ever in danger?" she asked, unable to stop herself.
Mr. Darcy stalked past her, shaking his head. "I ought not have said anything at all. It is not my tale to tell," he said in some regret, and to Elizabeth's ear, some distress. "Georgiana may confide in you, if she so chooses. But I cannot decide for her."
She hastened to catch up to him and breathlessly entreated him: "Sir, you make my imagination run wild. I am now quite anxious. But I am hopeful that all is, again, quite well for her. Can you not at least tell me that?"
"Yes. Of course -- she is quite safe now; I could hardly stray so far from her now if that were not the case. But she is not herself. She has been quite dispirited since -- since it happened."
She observed his stricken expression in mute compassion for a moment before offering, "I see. I am sorry to hear it."
He turned to her appealingly. "I know your society will be of great benefit to her, Miss Bennet. I hope you still will consider exchanging calls with her, once you are in London."
"But of course! I told her in my letter that I would be glad to do so."
He smiled. "Thank you."
They walked again for some time in near-silence, broken only by the imploring whines and triumphant barks of their canine companion which continued to prolong their game.
Sensing that Mr. Darcy had returned somewhat to his ease due to her promise, and realizing that he had shown a generous measure of trust in her by giving her what information he felt he could regarding his sister, Elizabeth gathered her courage to ask for his assistance in solving the disconcerting mystery that still lay heavily upon her.
As she shaded her eyes to watch another one of Mr. Darcy's long volleys fly into the distance, she said suddenly, "Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, I find I must, perhaps, burden yours. I wish to seek your advice regarding a new acquaintance I made recently among the militia quartered in Meryton."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," Mr. Darcy replied evenly, though not without some curiosity in his lifted brow. "Is this acquaintance someone I might know?"
"He did claim to know you. He claimed to know many things about you, in fact, although I doubted much of it was true," she said haltingly. "He said that you and he had grown up together in Derbyshire."
Unable to mistake her meaning, Mr. Darcy's color at once rose in a haze of red against his white cravat. "George Wickham is here? In Hertfordshire?"
"Then you do know him?"
Mr. Darcy glowered at the ground. "Yes, as much as the admittance pains me, I do. And I am sorry if he importuned you in any way, Miss Bennet. He is, as you appear to have guessed, not a man to be trusted."
Elizabeth nodded, measuring his obvious displeasure with a glance. "I thought as much," she said, letting out a breath. "When he spoke to me and gave me to know of his history, I thought him a little too smooth, too plausible by half. He has easy, unguarded manners which would have given me every impression of good breeding, except that I could not escape the impropriety of his sharing so much in his narration of his life's struggles with me as an essential stranger."
Mr. Darcy paused a moment, turning to look at her in some relief. "Mr. Wickham does indeed have the happy manners that enable him to make friends easily. Whether he is capable of keeping them is less certain, however." Upon saying this, his expression changed, and he drew his hand before his mouth as he let out a breath, seeming to consider whether to keep what he knew to himself. But at last, he gazed at her in pained sincerity and said, "The offenses he has committed against my family, and indeed against the world, have been the source of great misery to many."
'Such an indictment!' thought Elizabeth. "Should the populace of Meryton be concerned?" she asked anxiously.
Caesar returned again at that moment with his stick, which Mr. Darcy duly captured; but rather than throwing it, he used it to swipe at the hedge as he passed. "The tradesmen of the town should certainly be warned not to extend him any credit. I have claimed enough of his debts myself to know his habits. And I feel as though I should also warn Colonel Foster to be sure to observe him carefully in society."
"And why -- why sir, is that?" said Elizabeth, catching her breath as she strove to keep up with him, for in his apprehension, he had once again lengthened his stride.
Mr. Darcy's eye drew once more to the ground, and his steps, which had begun to outpace her, slowed until he came to a full stop on the path. He looked at her earnestly, opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it, and then paced away from her again with Caesar in tow. Elizabeth watched Mr. Darcy in silent apprehension, growing more and more in her trepidation of what he might relate, before hurrying after him.
She recognized now, amidst the many revelations unraveling this mystery pertaining to Mr. Wickham's tale, that she now beheld her evidence of greatest weight against him: for in Mr. Darcy's naked unease, she found the mark of a man with a true and awful burden to relate, which contrasted sharply with the buoyant, almost cheerful countenance of the one who had voiced so many lies.
In less than a quarter-mile of pathway, Mr. Darcy soon collected himself again and turned about. In a more measured pace, he came to stand before her, addressing her with some composure at last.
"I would not speak too deeply of this part of Mr. Wickham's nature to any woman, being that it is indelicate," he began, seeking her gaze with an apology in his own. "But I rely upon your superior understanding to infer my meaning when I ask you, Miss Bennet, to ensure that your younger sisters are never alone with him -- nor Miss Bennet or yourself, for that matter."
Elizabeth blanched and said, "Sir, what I must deduce from this warning is indeed a damaging accusation -- "
" -- which is, unfortunately, far too true," Mr. Darcy finished for her. "I can not only provide the names of victims and witnesses for you to interview, if you so require; but further, I can affirm that I observed him myself when we were at Cambridge together, when his vicious habits and concupiscent propensities proved themselves as dissolute as any I have ever witnessed."
Elizabeth's understanding broadened at once. "Is that, then, why you denied him the living at the rectory?"
Mr. Darcy blinked in surprise. "He spoke to you of that?"
"He did indeed. He spun quite a long, sad tale."
"I cannot allow myself to be surprised," said Mr. Darcy, shaking his head. "Did he also tell you that he refused the living, and asked instead to be compensated for it? That he claimed an intention to study the law? I confess I rather wished, than believed him to be sincere, so relieved was I that he was not to join the church. And although I greatly doubted that he would actually apply the funds to his proposed purpose, I acceded to his request to remunerate him accordingly. It was only a little over two years ago that this financial arrangement was transacted, and I can show you in my steward's books his signature verifying acceptance of this substitution in place of my father's preferment."
Elizabeth nodded, trying to reassure him with her earnest expression that she felt she needed no such evidence from him. His word, weighted as it was already by the recommendation of his character, was enough for her, she realized all too suddenly.
Mr. Darcy paused -- for he was being heckled by Caesar's whines -- to cast the poor dog's prize once more into the treeline. Caesar raced off again in pursuit.
"And so, now he is in the militia," Mr. Darcy said, almost absently, as he stared after his reckless hound. "I wish I could say I was astounded to now be led by this intelligence to believe that, after he received the thousand pounds which my father had left him outright five years ago, he has now certainly also dispensed with the three thousand pounds which I granted him directly in lieu of the living in our more recent exchange. I know full well of his penchant for idleness; he would only enlist and face the rigors of military life out of most dire necessity. I fear, given his habits, that he must have played his funds away through poor hands in some gaming hell; perhaps he even now feels the weight of debts stacked against him."
Elizabeth was dumbstruck as she calculated the living expenses she knew her family incurred in one year, weighing them in comparison to those which one man should rightfully claim. "I am all astonishment at his waste of such a sum!" she exclaimed. "To have lost it already! Why, he could have lived contentedly, with some small comforts, had he invested those funds with any care."
Mr. Darcy shook his head. "In addition to his love of gaming tables, he has ever been a spendthrift and eager to live lavishly. I am afraid my father indulged him too much as a boy, unwittingly feeding that appetite in the child to the degree that the man now considers such extravagance his due whenever he feels a penchant for it."
Elizabeth now felt she understood Mr. Wickham's motive at last for making the man before her his nemesis, when he ought to have been a friend. "And that is why he hates you, then? Because it is your due?" she asked unthinkingly.
Abruptly, Mr. Darcy's open, albeit pained, countenance transformed into the more guarded expression which she recognized as one he once wore when sparring with her in Miss Bingley's parlour on the issue of his faults. Speaking measuredly, much as he had then, he declared, "I do not consider it such. My estate and fortune are hardly even mine; all of it was entrusted to me by those who gained their fortune long before my birth, who would intend for me to leave it as an inheritance for generations still to come. It would be the height of selfishness for me to fritter it away in my few decades of life for mere pleasure's sake."
Elizabeth reddened. "I did not mean to imply -- "
"I know you did not," he pardoned her, with his grave countenance at last softening a little as he looked at her and seemed to take her measure anew. Elizabeth colored further under his study, but did not avert her gaze. Only the riotous return of playful Caesar, who treaded upon her hem, caused her to return to herself, and Mr. Darcy, to himself.
Mr. Darcy pulled off his beaver, and in some agitation, ran his fingers through his dark hair. "I am sorry to have spoken so defensively," he said after a moment. "I find that this is a subject on which I have meditated heavily, and would wish more in the world could see and understand, especially those amongst the peerage. The aristocracy is active in its own destruction in our generation, living only for its own desires with little consideration for the sacrifices of its ancestors or the hardships that future legacies may face. I would not see it so at Pemberley -- not while my children, or my sister's children, and their children after, all depend upon my diligence, not the least to bespeak of those hundreds of families who daily tend and rely upon the land and properties I hold for their own survival."
Elizabeth, although in this moment innocent of any intention to malign Mr. Darcy, felt ashamed of herself for her previous thoughts against him, even as she was overtaken by wonder at her companion and the burdens of his fate. True, she had known that he had a great house, fortune, and properties -- all this she had heard said and had repeated herself, and at times and to a certain degree had even mocked as sources of his pride.
But now, she more than knew these facts in her mind; she felt the weight of it all, profoundly, as she stared at his face in the dappled sunlight, where the shadows had driven into the line of his furrowed brow. As a brother, a landlord, a master, how many people's happiness were in his guardianship! How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! How much good or evil must be done by him! How deeply he seemed to feel it -- and how favorably this sensibility vouched for his character!
"I never understood you properly before," she admitted aloud, causing him to meet her eyes. " -- I never understood you properly when you said that 'pride, where there is a true superiority of mind, will always be under good regulation.' There is much, I think, that you could be proud of, Mr. Darcy: in the things you own, and in what you accomplish -- but how tenuous that balance would prove, should you ever become too assured of the permanence of either!"
"Yes," he said, blinking at her in some astonishment. "Yes, exactly. Those were my thoughts precisely when I uttered those words to you."
Elizabeth, surprised herself by her own insight and by the intimacy of communion it brought to the very air dancing between them, suddenly had to glance away. "Then I am glad I that have taken the opportunity to re-examine them," she answered quietly.
They resumed their progress in a silence that edged beyond the pale of merely companionable. For neither of them felt, at that moment, that they had ever better known, till now, the other -- or themselves. They walked on together invigorated by the compounded warmth of mutual understanding.
As they ambled, their path turned its pleasant course back towards the great house. Soon they broke again beyond the wilder trees and into the orchard lining the drive, and Caesar began barking in a tone that signaled some discovery. Abruptly, the dog abandoned his game to rush beyond them in the direction of the road.
Mr. Darcy was quick to call out after his hound. "Caesar! To heel, boy!"
As Caesar checked himself with a whine, Elizabeth's own curiosity stirred, and she attempted to satiate it by looking down the drive.
"Sir, there is a carriage coming," she said, perceiving it at a distance that hindered the sound of its rumbling progression from reaching her human ears. "Although I have no inkling as to whom among our acquaintance might come to call so early. Do you?"
Mr. Darcy surveyed the carriage as it grew larger in his vision. "No, and neither do I recognize the conveyance. I cannot perceive any colors of livery, either, which might distinguish it."
Elizabeth shaded her eyes against the sunlight that defied her bonnet brim, observing the carriage until she could, at last, make out the set of seemingly mismatched horses -- of different stocks of breed, matched not for color or size, but yoked cleverly together in formation based on their individual strengths, levels of endurance, and responsive sensitivities -- pulling it along.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I do know it!" And without a thought beyond her own eagerness, she gathered up her skirts and hastened towards the conveyance in a most indecorous fashion. When her feet hit the even ground upon the lawn of Netherfield, she ran.
Mr. Darcy was left in her wake, shaking his head as the leaves she disturbed by her passage settled around his boots. "Well," he chuckled to Caesar, "I may surmise, at least, that we are not to expect Mr. Collins."
Posted on: 2013-03-17
Mr. Darcy watched as the carriage drew to a halt, at which time Elizabeth, now out of breath, came to a full stop before it. A man descended apace from the conveyance, handing out a woman immediately after him -- his wife, Darcy assumed, by their easy familiarity with each other. At this distance, Darcy could perceive both strangers to be dressed suitably in plain clothes for travel, but the finer tailoring of their garments gave them elegant silhouettes as they stood in the sunlight. They therefore appeared to Darcy's eye to be people of some fashion, and, judging by their trim figures, bright complexions, and nimble comportment, he reasoned that they might perhaps be a decade and some years younger than Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
Beyond the reach of any conjecture on his part was the unmistakable power of Elizbeth's response to the couple's presence. Her genuine joy upon greeting them confirmed that she not only knew them well, but obviously held these friends in her highest esteem.
Mr. Darcy walked slowly towards their party in the thrall of his own curiosity, and he watched as Elizabeth at once fell into the lady's embrace. As he drew nearer to observe, he could discern tears welling in the lady's eyes as she set Elizabeth a little back from her bosom in order to better study her.
"Oh, Lizzy! I am so relieved!" she exclaimed, and without pause, again enfolded Elizabeth into her arms with little notice or care for the stranger bearing witness.
"My dear girl," seconded the lady's husband, touching Elizabeth's shoulder and handing a handkerchief to his wife, once she had again released Elizabeth. Elizabeth then dutifully and warmly came forward to press the man's shoulder and kiss his cheek with warm fondness.
"Uncle, it is so good of you to come so soon," said Elizabeth with feeling. "And Aunt, how unexpected, yet delightful, that you should accompany him!"
"Neither of us could rest easy at home with our worries," declared her aunt. "But now that I have seen you, I am satisfied that my prayers are answered. You look truly well, my dear, and seem in good spirits, too." Here, her aunt paused, and glanced beyond Elizabeth to her tall companion, who had approached their family reunion to better behold its participants. Elizabeth followed her aunt's gaze to where Mr. Darcy now stood a little awkwardly to the side as he signaled to the prancing dog in Elizabeth's shadow to draw to heel.
"Pray, forgive us, sir," said Elizabeth's uncle, bowing to their newcomer and addressing him. "We have come unannounced, with no excuse for our call but our concern. I find I must apologize for our intrusion with the same fervor with which I must thank you for your hospitality to our relations, Mr. Bingley."
Elizabeth, seeing her uncle's eagerness and blushing for his confusion of address, stepped forward between the men. "I am remiss as well, Uncle," she declared, "for not properly introducing you just now to the gentleman before you."
She turned apologetically to Mr. Darcy and gave him the honor of rank. "Mr. Darcy, may I introduce to you my aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner?"
As Elizabeth's relations demonstrated their good breeding through their correct reverences despite their obvious discomfiture at the misidentification of their new acquaintance, Darcy could not discover in himself any sensation of insult, but rather, a sudden desire to put these relations, obviously so dear to Elizabeth, more at ease.
"Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner," he responded, smiling slightly as he bowed in answer.
It was Mrs. Gardiner who sought to smooth the path of their exchange from there. "I also must apologize to you for not preventing my husband from mistaking you just now, Mr. Darcy," she said, with a mixture of equal parts playfulness, sincerity and sweetness that Darcy could now easily place. "For, hailing from Lambton, I bore the advantage of at once recognizing the likeness of your late father in your appearance. He was regarded as a very good man - and, as events have lately shown, you are in many ways like him. It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir."
"You honor me, Mrs. Gardiner," he responded in some surprise. He bowed again, finding the sincerity of her words as unexpected a gift as her praise. Looking then to Mr. Gardiner with a side glance, he smiled. "In any event, such confusion as your husband suffered is easily understandable. Were I your host, my approach just now would have been all that decorum might demand upon your arrival at Netherfield. But I have no excuse but my own curiosity to justify myself in following Miss Bennet to meet you here. The intrusion was all mine."
Mr. Gardiner chuckled and responded, "Let us not beweary ourselves by debating our casting in the role of intruder. For here we are, unannounced callers in Mr. Bingley's park - having arrived too early for calls!"
Mr. Darcy was pleased to find in Mr. Gardiner not only good humour, but eminently more sense and evident concern for propriety than he had yet observed in most of Elizabeth's other relations. "I shall be glad to remedy your predicament by making your visit known to my friend," he volunteered, surprising himself with his own offer. "And I may safely guarantee you, sir, that Mr. Bingley's amiable disposition will allow him to feel nothing but delight at the news of your coming."
His assurances earned him smiles from Elizabeth and both of her relatives. He basked in the glow from Elizabeth's bright eyes for a moment before recollecting himself and continuing, "I shall be gone but a moment to fetch him, with your leave."
"Oh, by all means," answered Mrs. Gardiner. "We are much obliged to you, sir."
Curtsies and bows made evident their mutual regard at their parting. Afterwards, Elizabeth turned to watch Mr. Darcy make short work of the front steps of the great house with his long-shanked stride. As she observed his graceful and efficient passage, her heart felt unaccountably soft and full within her breast, and she smiled in unconscious amusement when she spotted Caesar dutifully rushing along to join his master as he entered the house.
"Elizabeth," said her aunt, recalling her attention. "Is this the 'proud, disagreeable' Mr. Darcy of whom you wrote to me a month ago? Why, he is all ease and friendliness - no false dignity at all!"
"Indeed, I would not have expected such attention from so great a man," seconded her uncle. "Upon my word, he seems remarkably good-humored and kind."
"I own I gave myself the disadvantage of judging Mr. Darcy from an unfair first impression, which prolonged company with that gentleman has since forced me to discredit," said Elizabeth, shaking her head. "And besides that, I owe him due consideration out of gratitude, for I can hardly continue to dislike the man who saved my life! For that, I could sing his praises all day long, if you wish."
"I think you could," said her aunt, peering closely at her niece.
"Aunt!" squeaked her niece in some surprise as her cheeks took on a telling, rosy hue.
Her aunt smiled. "You did not tell me that Mr. Darcy is uncommonly handsome, in addition to being tall," she continued in a tone of playful chiding. "It is not every day one finds his equal among young men, I daresay. And as to his having some appearance of pride, I cannot find that it damages his aspect in the slightest. There is something a little stately about him to be sure, but it is confined to his air -- a dignity, I might call it, which well befits him."
"Now you are singing his praises, my dear," Mr. Gardiner teased his wife.
Mrs. Gardiner feigned innocence. "Am I? I am merely speaking as I find. And I am not wrong, am I, Lizzy? You cannot tell me you do not think him handsome."
"Aunt, really, I - "
At that moment, Netherfield's great doors flew open, and Mr. Bingley's eager step was heard upon the portico, followed only by the slightly less hasty footfalls of the larger party of Mr. Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Jane, and Mary, who followed him out en masse.
"Mr. Bingley!" called Elizabeth, relieved by the distraction. "May I introduce you to my aunt and uncle?"
The acquaintance was made with pleasure, and once all this was expressed, Mr. Bingley invited the Gardiners to come directly into the house.
It being still too early for luncheon, tea and coffee were brought round for refreshment, and as the rest of the Bennets converged, conversation with their relatives flowed easily under Mr. Bingley's affable hosting.
Miss Bingley and the Hursts appeared somewhat reluctantly in the parlour after a quarter-hour of such pleasantry, at which point, discussion paused for the performance of more introductions.
"Charmed, I am sure," said Miss Bingley with barest civility, bobbing to the Gardiners, once her brother had done his office.
"My sister informs me that her family has received every comfort and kindness from you as their hostess here, ma'am," said Mr. Gardiner warmly with a bow. "We are so grateful for your hospitality to them during this interim, until we could open our home to them as well. You are very kind."
"It was no trouble, I assure you. We have a very capable staff here at Netherfield, which, I am pleased to say, allows us to keep many guests in comfort," she replied stiffly.
"Indeed, you seem very well-settled here already, although I heard you have only been moved-in for but a month," complimented Mrs. Gardiner. "Is that true?"
There was an unexpected lull after this question. "Yes, that is true," tittered Mrs. Hurst airily into the silence, peering nervously at her sister, who seemed to have suddenly found her bracelets more interesting than her guests. She took a breath and continued, "We came up from our townhome in London near Michelmas, and some of our servants came with us. We have several new ones that our housekeeper hired here once the house was open, but I daresay I have yet to even meet them all."
"We hope you may have many years to enjoy the house and its new staff. The neighborhood has certainly been blessed by your coming," Mrs. Gardiner responded warmly.
Mrs. Hurst and her sister merely smiled, the latter feeling no real sincerity. It was then Miss Bingley's desire to ask the Gardiners somewhat of their home, and she exerted herself to ask of it with a look which anticipated her satisfaction in forcing them to confess to its want of size and good neighborhood.
"Our house is certainly not so large as Netherfield, nor even as Longbourn," replied Mrs. Gardiner evenly. "But it is on a very pleasant street, and close to Mr. Gardiner's office, so we are content. We have four children -- two girls and two boys -- and I have sent them to stay with my sister for a week until the Bennets are all settled with us. We hope, Miss Bingley, to remove the Bennets to London on Tuesday, if that is convenient."
"Oh, yes, that is hardly a trouble to me. I hope you shall all be content to hole up together in your little house in Cheapside," said Miss Bingley blithely, knowing full well that Jane had made clear the distinction that their house was near Cheapside, but not in it; and moreover, that her tone conveyed a wish that the Bennets would get away from Netherfield, and stay away in seclusion in such a low-heeled area of town.
The coldness and coarseness of Miss Bingley's response was not lost on her brother, who let fall his spoon to his saucer with a clatter before he sallied into the conversation with a quick, well-bred remark and change of topic: "Miss Bennet was just telling me this morning how much she looks forward to spending time with you all, and what a merry party you always make at Gracechurch Street. Do you not sometimes host the Bennets at Christmas, and they you, at Longbourn?"
"Indeed we do sir; that is why we were able to prepare for their coming with such relative ease, for it has all been arranged once in years before," replied Mrs. Gardiner with some relief at his good grace.
Her husband nodded, adding, "I daresay we shall have a very joyful Season. Our children, once they return to the settled house, will be delighted to have their cousins already there to play with them, especially Jane and Lizzy, who quite dote upon them." Here, Mr. Gardiner gave his favourites a smile. "Such good girls they are, very loving and obliging," he added in praise.
"We shall be happy to see them again as well," declared Elizabeth, smiling at her uncle. "Little Thomas is quite skilled with his speaking now, and loves to go down to the Thames to see the tradeships and ferries. I daresay baby Samuel is almost big enough to come with us, if I carry him part of the way. I will show the boys how to make and race their own paper boats, if the weather is ever mild."
Jane nodded, adding, "And I look forward to instructing the girls, who are also delightful. Amanda is learning to read, and Meredith, who has been reading these two years at least, is learning to draw and sew. I think we shall enjoy many pleasant hours of telling stories to them while we engage in some quiet pursuits, in addition to the dancing and frivolity certain to be found during the holidays."
Such cheerful prospects could not but paint delightful visions in the minds' eyes of their hearers, including the two young men, who silently acknowledged to themselves that such charming domesticity as these images presented only added to the many attractions of the eldest Miss Bennets.
After an animated discussion about the remembered joys of the holidays experienced in childhood, the Gardiners recollected that they were due to continue on to the Phillipses', and expressed a wish to see the Bennets all again at the Philipses' apartment. "My sister will send round a note," said Mr. Gardiner. "I cannot be trusted to convey any details, except to say that I know she will wish to have the family all together very soon."
Mrs. Gardiner then turned to their hosts and expressed again all their pleasure and gratitude, curtseying most deeply to Mr. Bingley.
Farewells were soon made at the door, with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley bowing their goodbyes and the Bennets more warmly embracing their relations and shaking hands as they took their leave.
When the door was shut, the Bennets returned to their various employments, and Elizabeth, to her pleasant reflections on her morning ramble.
Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy declared their wish to repair together to the library to discuss business, but even as they entered that room to arrange their concerns, Miss Bingley invaded their territory in a flurry of lace and bright cloth and solicited Mr. Darcy for his assistance.
"For I cannot find anything of worth to read, sir," she complained, "and my mind is laden with more nonsense than I can stand after spending my morning with such tedious company!"
Mr. Darcy rose silently, went to the shelf, and, plucking up a collection of Samuel Johnson's essays, pressed the volume into her hand. He then sat down and turned back to Mr. Bingley, not trusting himself to speak to her.
"Why, Mr. Darcy, is there any reason why you would wish for me to read from Dr. Johnson in particular?" Miss Bingley entreated, unnerved by his silence.
"I would direct you, madam, to his work on 'Conversation.' It seemed you were rather out of practice this morning when the Gardiners visited," replied Mr. Darcy artlessly. "Indeed, many felt that much of what you said was badly done."
"'Badly done!'" cried she in perplexed astonishment.
Seeing her blanch and hoping that this signaled some opportunity for amendment on her part, Mr. Bingley addressed his sister. "Mr. Darcy is perfectly right, Caroline. I don't know what possessed you to show such ill-grace to the Gardiners, but I would not have it so again."
"Oh, Charles! Living with the Bennets has made you forget what you have risen to. Do you really care what that tradesman and his wife may think of you? I certainly do not!"
Bingley's jovial cheeks reddened. "I would. I do!" he declared. "They are Jane Bennet's favorite relatives; she has so much as told me this explicitly, and I saw for myself that they are kind and sensible people. I would not for the world make them uncomfortable in my home, and I was quite ashamed of you today for making them feel so unwelcome. Indeed, Caroline, they are even doing you a kindness in removing the Bennets from this house, since their presence here gives you so little pleasure. For that, at least, I had hoped you might spare them your incivility."
"I was as civil to them as the slight acquaintance required," sniffed Miss Bingley, "for I am not in a rage to connect myself with that family, Charles, and it alarms me that you appear to be so. Jane can bring nothing to you in marriage -- nothing at all! -- except for her pretty face and the misery of her relations, who will hang upon you for every penny of their existence once they realize that their little estate will no longer be of any good to them."
"That is patently unkind and untrue!" declared Bingley hotly, before, in some real anxiety, he turned to his friend and inquired, "Isn't it, Darcy? Wouldn't you say the estate is not beyond repair?"
"It is not beyond it; the Bennets will merely have to economize in order to afford the necessary repairs, and so they shall. There is no reason to suspect that they cannot gain some livelihood yet from their home, not the least from the land around it, which, with management, will continue to produce."
"You see, Caroline?" exclaimed her brother triumphantly. "I have no need to listen to your unfounded concerns or your unfriendly complaints."
"I speak the truth," insisted his sister. "Even if they are not now, they will soon be reduced to becoming the worst of fortune hunters, Charles. Mark my words; it shall be so. I feel very little sympathy towards them -- except for dear Jane, of course, whose fault none of this is."
Her brother blinked as if struck. "I can't believe what I'm hearing! Listen to yourself, Caroline!"
"Listen to yourself, Charles," she retorted. "You are soon to be taken for a fool, if it is not too late already. Let not your misguided compassion turn into a misguided passion. Jane is not for you. The Bennets are not for you. You would do well to learn to see their kind for what they are!"
As Mr. Bingley's temper caused him to leap up from of his chair to his feet, Mr. Darcy, who had withstood quite enough, decided to intervene at once before the siblings' squabble deteriorated further into more overtly childish fighting.
Rising and turning to Miss Bingley, he spoke to her in a stern yet detached tone. "Consider your situation in life and theirs, Miss Bingley. Are you not yourself out for an advantageous marriage?" Here, he glanced at her meaningfully enough that she blushed before he continued, "And do they not, more than you, have just cause to pursue such alliances, if indeed they even do actively pursue them? Would that you would reflect on that, and not be the first to cast stones at them. To do so now smacks of unwonted viciousness where there should be compassion on your part -- and the more so because they are no longer your equals in prosperity or consequence due to their recent tragedy, and may yet sink further still. Were there not a gulf between your situation and theirs, and your comfort and their homelessness at present, I would not quarrel with you about any liberties of manner you may have taken today; but as it is, your ill-intentioned remarks delivered towards their relations in the presence of the entire Bennet family were indeed badly done, Miss Bingley. Very badly done!"
His tone had risen with passion at the end of his chastening, and Miss Bingley, stunned into silence by his rebuke, dropped her book to the floor with a thump and ran from the room.
Mr. Darcy, seeing her truly affected -- perhaps even stricken -- for once, turned in surprised contrition to his friend. "I ought not have spoken to your sister so, Charles. My temper overtook my judgment, and I overstepped. I apologize."
His friend shook his head. "You were not wrong, Darcy. I would only wish that she would listen to me as she does to you."
Darcy sat down, his weary expression suddenly thoughtful. "I think she only gave me her ear today because she had 'set her cap' at me some time ago, and my words today have proven to her that she has absolutely nothing in her power to attract my admiration after such an ill-judged display. As a brother, your words could not have wounded her vanity so much as mine have done just now. Would that my admonishments would give her some impetus to examine herself and see her prejudice in a proper light!"
"I would say 'amen' to that, Darcy, and what's more, I thank you for speaking as you did." With these words, Bingley went to the sideboard and poured them both a measure of brandy. Bringing a glass to his friend, he raised his own. "To the betterment of all our characters," he declared.
Mr. Darcy, considering his own, raised his glass. "Here, here."
After a more sedate hour spent discussing matters of business and estate, Mr. Bingley left his friend to his own letters of business and went in search of Jane. For he could not quell the morning's uneasiness within his breast until he had spoken to her -- not when he felt she had been offended by his thoughtless sister.
He found Jane with her sister Elizabeth, sitting in the sun on the sofa in the music room and looking over a book on pattern-making that he could not recall having seen before.
"Do you truly think you can reupholster the entire chair yourself, Lizzy?" Jane was saying.
"With some careful measuring for the pattern pieces, how can it be different than tailoring a very well-tailored suit or jacket?" returned Elizabeth. "I will have to ask our Aunt about where to find a suitable sort of leather that will bear needlework without complaint. I would hate to make a mess of it by choosing the wrong material."
Mr. Bingley cleared his throat, and the sisters looked up at him in surprise. "Mr. Bingley," they said together, in a chorus that made him chuckle, as they dropped into their curtsies.
"I am sorry to interrupt," he said, somewhat uncertain as to how to begin, "but I wanted to offer my apologies to both of you for my sister's bad behavior this morning. I have spoken with Caroline in the library -- well, Darcy and I did, really -- and I truly believe she felt sorry for her untoward remarks to your aunt and uncle. As your host, I feel very responsible for their treatment in my home, and I have every desire to make amends."
"You are kindness itself, Mr. Bingley. But please believe me when I say that Miss Bingley's actions are of little matter; my aunt and uncle know your character well, sir, and do not reproach you," Jane said, her voice eager and eyes soft with compassion as she spoke to soothe him.
Her sweetness left him breathless for a moment, until, gathering himself, he grinned and asked her, "And do they think so charitably of me because you have given them some good report, Miss Bennet?" He smiled widely as she blushed mutely.
"I can tell you that I have said very little to them about you, Mr. Bingley -- so you surmise rightly regarding their source of information," put in Elizabeth cheekily, before snatching up the pattern book with a glance at her sister that transformed into words. "If you don't mind, Jane, I am going to find Papa and ask for his newspaper so that I can cut it up for some draft patterns. It will be good for me to practice."
She gave Mr. Bingley her curtsey, and, smilng to herself for thinking up a suitable excuse, she left the couple to their own devices.
Mr. Bingley smiled at his beloved in the rare stillness that followed. Jane was haloed by the sunlight from the window, highlighting her marvelous hair with a corona of gold and glistening fairness, glimmering in places with a gossamer colour nearing celestial white. Her cheeks glowed with soft hues of roses, even as her exquisite eyes lifted to him with an expression of growing warmth.
As she returned his admiring glance with one of her own modest pleasure, he shook off the misgivings that his sister had voiced. Jane was all goodness -- he knew it, and had known it from the first -- and he would be an utter fool if he did not take advantage of their privacy now.
"Miss Bennet," he began, "truly, I meant what I said: I fervently hope that my sister's behavior has not damaged any of your congenial feelings towards me."
"Oh, no, sir! Absolutely not!" she returned with feeling. "You need never feel any concern about that, sir."
"Indeed? That is a comfort to me," he confided, shifting from foot to foot before moving to approach her more closely. "And, if your feelings for me have not suffered any injury today, I am grateful, for I am relying upon them to champion my cause just now. For there is -- there is something very particular I wish to ask you."
Jane, already blushing, looked at him in astonished hope. Seeing greater wishes alive in his eyes, she boldly offered, "You may ask me anything, sir. I feel compelled to assure you that my feelings and my thoughts do champion you and any cause you might wish to further. For I think you the best of men, Mr. Bingley -- the very best of men."
Her daring words and her heartfelt gaze, which then fell to the floor as even brighter color gathered in her cheeks, told him just how much this confession had cost her. This, in turn, emboldened him.
"I am flattered that you think that of me, in spite of my failings," he rejoined. "And I wish you to know that my feelings towards you are very similar: I think you an angel among women, the best and fairest and kindest of your sex," he declared with sincerity in his bright eyes. He came to her then, drawing still nearer and continuing in a hushed voice, "You must know how much I admire you, how much I adore you, Miss Bennet!"
Jane sat speechless and trembling, her eyes dancing, delight and awe transforming her countenance. To her joy and delighted surprise, she watched her beloved suddenly drop to one knee as he continued, "-- And I would be truly honored, Miss Bennet, if you would consent to become my wife."
Her response was immediate. She rose from the sofa to give him both of her hands, and stood close, smiling down at him. "Yes, Mr. Bingley," she said softly. "I would be honored; I would be so happy to become your wife, for my feelings for you are, indeed, in every respect the equal of yours. I -- I love you, Mr. Bingley."
The bright sunshine could not compete with the brilliance of Bingley's smile upon hearing her fervent acceptance and avowal of affection. He leapt at once to his feet, and, forsaking any propriety in his ebullience, pressed her naked hands to his lips with abandon, then released them in favor of cupping her beautiful face reverently in his fingertips.
"Charles, Jane. Call me Charles," he breathed.
"Charles," she echoed softly, her eyes moving over his face in wonder at the energy and ecstasy he emanated.
His thumbs brushed over her smooth cheeks, enchanting them both with the sensation. "Jane, Jane, my angel, I love you so. You have made me the happiest of men!" he exclaimed in a voice diminished by the rush of exquisite tenderness that had risen like floodwater up to his throat. Searching her eyes, which shone brightly with joy, he swallowed and allowed his gaze to drop to her rosy, smiling mouth. Then a question left his lips before he could reclaim it: "May I -- may I kiss you, Jane?"
She nodded, tilting her lovely face up to him, and he, rendered near-euphoric by her happy compliance, pressed his lips to hers softly, sweetly, and with great pleasure. When they parted after a lingering moment, they shared a breath, and both of their faces were immediately overspread with the deepest blush.
He held her hands and stared at her as they recovered together from the pleasant shock of it all.
Squeezing her hands, he turned his face to the door. "I -- I should go to your father immediately," uttered Mr. Bingley distractedly, taking a step back.
"Wait," said Jane, to her own surprise. "Will you not kiss me good-bye?"
Beaming, he answered her request with alacrity, kissing her with greater fervor, until the knowledge of there still being many people around the house separated them. He gave Jane his brightest smile before he went at once in search of Mr. Bennet.
Jane, weak-kneed by such excitement, settled onto the little stool next to Miss Bingley's harp, breathless and happier than she had ever been in her store of memory. Dazed, she sat in delightful meditation for several minutes until she slowly recovered her wits and her composure.
Then, anticipating all the delight that her news would bring to so many, she went in search of her mother and sisters.
Posted on: 2013-03-25
Luncheon at Netherfield was a joyous affair. So joyous, in fact, that everyone had their share in a bowl of punch, including the servants downstairs. If Miss Bingley's absence was noted, it was not mentioned, for there was nothing that seemed worthy of dampening the happiness within the house.
Mrs. Bennet was beyond elated, and she praised her soon-to-be son-in-law to the skies before engaging her faculties to settle the task of finding Jane's wedding clothes in London.
"Oh! How I wish my brother and his wife were here again now," she fretted, "for the Gardiners will know exactly where to go and what to buy in town. I declare it shall be a pleasure to dress Jane so beautifully, for she will be the loveliest bride ever to be seen!"
"I shall not disagree with you on that point, ma'am," seconded Mr. Bingley, winking at Jane, and causing all of her sisters -- even Mary -- to burst into delighted laughter at Jane's answering blush. "There is none more beautiful, to my eyes," he continued, leaning on his hand and gazing at her in a manner so shamelessly besotted as to be nearly theatrical, giving some in their audience reason to continue giggling.
"Will she be able to marry from Longbourn, do you think, Papa?" Elizabeth asked her father.
"T'will be a tricky business," he said, considering it. "The house itself may not be occupied until just after the New Year; and even then, it may not be wise to have us all there at once while repairs are still taking place. But it could be accomplished; indeed the day's demands themselves could certainly be managed with assistance from your Aunt Philips."
"Why, yes indeed!" declared Mrs. Bennet, finding unexpected good sense in her husband's words. "My sister would be delighted to host the wedding breakfast, since the dining room at Longbourn may not be fit to bear company. Oh, that it could be at Longbourn, though! But at least Jane will have the comfort of having family to see her off."
"I will be more than content with any arrangements," declared Jane mildly, taking Mr. Bingley's hand under the table in response to his infectious smile. "I do not wish to inconvenience anyone in our family on a day that should be so full of pleasure."
"It will be no inconvenience at all, I am sure," Mrs. Bennet continued. "I shall go myself at tea-time to tell my sister of all that has happened. I know that she will leap at the opportunity to be of assistance to you, my dear, on such a happy occasion. After all, she thinks so well of all of you dear girls, and of you, sweet Jane, especially."
Mrs. Bennet's rather silly words indeed proved themselves true when the Bennets all arrived, with Mr. Bingley in tow, to call upon the Philipses at tea time. Mrs. Philips received the news and her additional guests with great surprise, but as Mrs. Bennet had portended, her pleasure instantly equaled that of her sister's upon hearing her good information. She rang immediately for more tea and pressed the maid to bring it out on their finest china.
While Mrs. Philips launched into her opinions on the wedding-day plans with her sister, their house-guests, the Gardiners, quietly came to Jane and Mr. Bingley to express their delight.
"You shall make such a lovely couple," remarked Mrs. Gardiner. "For I have never seen two congenial spirits more similar, nor two minds so alike. May I wish you great joy!"
She pressed Jane's hands and kissed her cheeks, and then stepped forward to shake Mr. Bingley's hand warmly, a gesture which he returned enthusiastically. "I hold Miss Bennet essential to my happiness," affirmed Mr. Bingley. "And I look towards our future together with nothing but anticipation."
"As well you should. A marriage of like minds can only continue to bring one satisfaction," observed Mr. Gardiner, smiling at his wife as he, too, stepped forward to pump his soon-to-be nephew's hand. "For, as concerns of household and the realities of daily life press in after the honeymoon, it is a joy to discover the sense and good humor of your partner, and to find in it ample encouragement and support. I grow more appreciative of my partner in life at every turn."
"Much as I find it hard to believe that I could appreciate Mr. Bingley's good sense and strength of character more than I do now, Uncle, I am delighted to place my faith in your promise," said Jane with a smile that revealed her teeth, pretty as pearls, before she leaned forward to press a fond kiss to her uncle's cheek.
Mr. Bingley, who had spent much of this afternoon unabashedly gazing at his fiancÄe and following all her actions with his eyes, recalled to himself with secret delight the kisses he had acquired that very morning from those self-same lips. Once Jane's gaze returned to his, he grinned, winning her answering smile in return, even as she puzzled out the mystery of his intensified regard.
Their presence evidently forgotten by the young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner observed the beaming lovers with a mirrored remembrance of delight. Elizabeth approached the group at that moment, and, seeing the Gardiners' amusement, shared with them a wry smile.
"Lizzy," said her aunt, turning to her. "I hope you will come along with Jane and your mother and I when we shop for Jane's trousseau in London. We will need your voice in support of Jane's choices, for I fear your mother has already made plans about what Jane will need."
"But of course! I shall be delighted to be of any assistance," she replied with a laugh.
"Wonderful! And Jane," Mrs. Gardiner added, attracting her eldest niece's attention again. "I have already told your mother that I will brook no argument regarding who shall pay for the wedding clothes. You are my first niece to marry, and it is my delight to treat you. After all, your Aunt Philips insists upon giving your wedding breakfast, so it is the least we can do."
"Oh, Aunt, you are truly kind!" exclaimed Jane. "I do not know what to say, except 'thank you', which seems hardly sufficient."
"Your joy is all-sufficient for us," Mr. Gardiner put in merrily, before Jane rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek again, and her aunt's as well.
With so much to discuss, their party was invited to stay on to dine. Mrs. Philips, knowing full well that Mr. Bingley had other guests who would miss him that evening, declared her intention to immediately pen a note to Netherfield inviting Miss Bingley and the Hursts to join them for an impromptu dinner party.
"Kindly remember Mr. Darcy, as well," Elizabeth advised her aunt, after Mr. Bingley responded to the plan with distracted affability. "For he is Mr. Bingley's dearest friend."
With a nod, Mrs. Philips dutifully included him in her note and immediately commissioned a boy to take it to Netherfield and await a reply. Mrs. Gardiner observed this succession of proceedings with a brow raised at the dealings of her second-eldest niece.
She approached Elizabeth with concern and warmth in her voice and manner. "We have not had much opportunity to catch up on each other's news, Elizabeth," she said. "I wonder if you would indulge me by walking out with me when the tea things are cleared. It shall be good for me to take some air after having spent so much of the early morning hours in a carriage."
"But of course, Aunt," said Elizabeth in some surprise, but not without delight, for she dearly loved her Aunt Gardiner and saw at once an opportunity to seek her confidence.
The two ladies walked out together onto the street in Meryton some twenty minutes later, arm-in-arm. At first, their conversation settled upon all that had happened on the evening of the fire, lingering on those points of interest which Elizabeth had already shared with Charlotte. And like Elizabeth's friend, Mrs. Gardiner expressed some pointed opinions on the gallant behavior of Mr. Darcy.
"It is a great deal he has taken on for your sake," observed Mrs. Gardiner.
"For all our sakes," Elizabeth corrected mindfully.
"That remains to be seen. From where I view it, Elizabeth, his attentiveness to you on the night of the fire, and in the evenings following, shows a marked interest. And a man with so much of his own estate to manage need not trouble himself to also assist your father with Longbourn - not unless he has reasons of his own to desire an expediency of relief for your family. His condescension seems to show an invested concern for your future."
"But I fail to see why it should be specifically my future that concerns him, Aunt," replied Elizabeth with a brow pinched in bemused concentration. "Could it not be that his sensibilities of kindness and charity on my family's behalf have been touched acutely due to the destruction he witnessed first-hand at our home?"
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Gardiner with a smile. "And you have already shown that you are willing to place a great deal of faith in his capacity for goodness. I wonder why you do so - what proof have you of his good character, beyond his heroics on the night of the fire, and his apparent interest in restoring Longbourn afterwards?"
Even as she spoke, Mrs. Gardiner knew she had calculated her words precisely to discompose Elizabeth a little with the desire of baiting her niece to rise to the defense of her hero. She had expected, perhaps, that Elizabeth could offer nothing as proof of Mr. Darcy's general goodness, beyond what she suspected were her niece's own burgeoning feelings of infatuation for the man, so she was astonished when Elizabeth gave her an answer that was infinitely more revealing.
"I know that he has been more than generous and fair to a man who did not deserve it. A man who, when I first met him, tried to discredit Mr. Darcy to my face with many lies, even though Mr. Darcy had shown him nothing but kindness -- and certainly more kindness than he deserved," Elizabeth began, before telling her aunt, in fuller detail, what Mr. Darcy had disclosed to her of Mr. Wickham and what Mr. Wickham had so wickedly tried to lead her to believe in contrast.
Mrs. Gardiner had but a moment to marvel at these revelations before her niece pressed her arm and gave her to know that she was not yet through. "And though we have never met face-to-face," Elizabeth continued, "I know also that Mr. Darcy's own sister -- though very young -- has quite an expansive sense of charity as well, for she unexpectedly wrote to me after the fire, and offered not only her sympathies, but her hospitality to my family as well. So you see, Aunt, the Darcys are just people of splendid kindness -- that is all. Mr. Darcy is not specifically devoted to me."
"Let me hear this rightly, Lizzy," said her aunt carefully. "Mr. Darcy goes into a fire and rescues you --"
"-- and my sister."
"Assists you with your injuries -"
"-- after he had already carried Kitty up the stairs."
"And then carries you up the stairs some nights later," continued Mrs. Gardiner, glancing at Elizabeth and noting both her disconcerted silence and her rising color, "and he allows his younger sister to correspond with you. Then, he spends a morning with you - "
"-- and my father!"
"-- over at Longbourn, before driving you -- quite unchaperoned -- to Lucas Lodge. And then this morning, when your uncle and I arrived, he had joined you on your morning walk, again unchaperoned, with an evident desire for your company. And he had shared much of his personal history with you on that walk, evidently taking so much delight in your companionship that he followed you right into our party without a thought," finished her aunt. "Elizabeth, does not this behavior seem singularly attentive to you?"
Elizabeth was silent, wishing and fearing to believe it. A remembrance of doubt roused her and, she offered it slowly: "But, Aunt, I know for a fact that he feels no particular attraction to me. Do you not remember what I told you he said at the Assembly?"
"Yes, I do," her aunt conceded. "And did you ever challenge him with that remark he made about you being merely 'tolerable'?"
"Yes," replied her niece with a smile. "You know my impertinent nature would not allow for it to remain long unchallenged."
"And what did he say?"
Elizabeth faltered again. "And - he said that he had 'hardly looked' at me that night, and so could not justify saying it, aside from his desire to rebuff Mr. Bingley's requests that he dance with women beyond his acquaintance."
Mrs. Gardiner's look was thoughtful. They walked on for a few moments before she spoke again, saying, "I must be satisfied, then, on only one point: that I see that you are thinking more carefully on this matter, Lizzy. But let us not debate Mr. Darcy's feelings further, especially since he has not declared himself. Nothing of his affections can be certain or may ever be, so it is useless now to speculate."
Elizabeth was forced to own that this was true. She nodded her understanding before her aunt continued in a manner softened by concern, "What I dearly wish to learn shall prove far more reliable, since I may apply to you directly for an answer: What are your feelings towards Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth was nearly brought up short by the question, even though she had begun to anticipate it. "I -- I confess I hardly know," she answered. "I judged him so unfairly at first. But now I own that I admire and esteem him as a man of great character and intelligence. I should like, at least, to call him 'friend.'"
Having perceived in Elizabeth more signs of attachment than her niece seemed willing to acknowledge, Mrs. Gardiner's caution to Elizabeth was punctually and kindly given. "You are too sensible a girl, Lizzy, to fall in love merely because you are warned against it; and, therefore, I am not afraid of speaking openly. Seriously, I would have you be on your guard. Do not give yourself over too quickly to an affection which as yet has no grounding through Mr. Darcy's declaration of intent. I have nothing to say against him; he seems a most honorable young man; and if he can love you without two shillings in your hand to rub together --or even respectable standing, should the worst happen with Longbourn -- I should think you could not do better, nor that he could be a better angel. But as it is, you must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it, so that you do not find yourself the victim of disappointed hopes -- however unintentionally -- by so great a man, whose position carries with it the shared burdens of heavy responsibilities and the undeniably influential force of his peers' high expectations. My dear niece, I therefore urge you to be careful with your heart, and to prepare yourself with the knowledge that he may yet bow to these pressures."
Elizabeth responded with a breathless laugh, and her words came out a little sharply. "My dear aunt, this is being serious indeed!"
Her aunt drew them a little aside on the sidewalk and gave her niece a quiet look that conveyed her understanding of Elizabeth's agitation. She gently squeezed her niece's hands and replied, "Yes, and I hope to engage you to be serious likewise, for your sake. I would not see you wounded by your own strong-willed affections, Lizzy, for you are dear to me."
Her niece's hands trembled a little as she returned her aunt's gesture with gentle pressure. Then, gathering herself, Elizabeth lifted her chin, took her aunt's arm again, and guided her back onto their route. "Well, then, you need not be under any alarm," she declared. "I will take care of myself, and of my friend Mr. Darcy, too. I shall not engage the allurements in my power to pursue his affections, or to even hope for them, if he does not first give me firm reason to do so. And I shall endeavour not to weep the loss, if he shall not attempt to woo."
Her aunt turned willingly with her back up the lane, but she cast her niece a look askance, worry still written clearly upon her brow. "Elizabeth, I fear you are not serious now."
"I beg your pardon; I will try again. At present I am not in love with Mr. Darcy; no, I certainly am not. But he is, beyond all comparison, the most honorable, clever, and handsome man I ever saw -- and if he becomes really attached to me -- I know I must prepare, perhaps, for some displeasure in equal force to my pleasure. For did I not today witness a small measure of the coldness I might expect from the Ton upon our union, if indeed we should ever unite?"
Elizabeth shook her head, smiling bitterly at the memory of Miss Bingley's twisted expression of disdain. Shaking her head, she continued, "My dear Aunt, I should be very sorry to be the means of making you unhappy by falling hopelessly in love with such a man; but my caution cannot help but be tendered by some small sources of optimism, since we see every day that where there is affection, and indeed, where a man might have means to offer, a match may be made which might repulse society at large. And if Mr. Darcy has bravery enough to face some spectacle due to a match between us, how can my courage not also be tempted? But, enough; you are right. This is all speculation, and at present, that gentleman and I are only friends. All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing. In short, I will do my best."
Mrs. Gardiner pressed her niece's arm gently in one last presage of warning as she said, "Perhaps it will be as well for your feelings if you do not seek for his coming more often than is needed, or than he himself would attempt, should he truly wish to pursue you. At least, you should not remind your relations of inviting him, if Mr. Bingley does not think to do so."
"As I did today," said Elizabeth with a conscious smile. "Very true, it will be wise for me to refrain from that. But do not imagine that such inaction on my part will avail much. It shall be on Mr. Bingley's account that he will so frequently be thrown into our company, regardless of whether he harbours any tender feelings for me. But despite this, and upon my honour, I will try to do what I think to be the wisest; and now I hope you are satisfied that I shall be careful with my own heart."
Her aunt assured her that she was, and Elizabeth, a little discomposed by her frankness, nevertheless thanked her for the kindness of her hints. The object of their walk thus complete, they turned back to the house, and went inside before it grew dark.
Elizabeth's promises were to be tested only two short hours later, after she had done her best to tidy her appearance for dinner and had descended from her Aunt Philips' guest room to await the arrival of the rest of Mr. Bingley's party. When the clatter of carriage wheels could be heard in the street outside, she made herself remain seated as her aunt and uncle Philips greeted the newcomers at the door.
It was in this moment, as her fingers clenched the armrests of her chair, in which she saw most clearly what she had sought before her aunt to deny: that she did indeed possess all the dangerous symptoms of tender feelings for Mr. Darcy. For was she not now exquisitely sensitive to every sound in the entryway which could be attributed to his progress? Was she not eagerly awaiting his appearance in the parlour and anticipating his words of greeting? Did she not expect pleasure in beholding again his handsome face, whose expressions were every day growing more comprehensible and dear to her?
His firm, familiar tread upon the hardwoods recalled her at once from her thoughts, and, wishing yet denying herself the gratification of rising to greet him with a smile, her knuckles whitened as she adhered to the cushion of her chair while Mr. Darcy drew near their gathered company.
She nearly dropped out of her perch in defeat when Mr. Darcy, perceiving in Elizabeth's uneasy posture some discomfort which he could not account for by sight alone, came to stand before her with a bow and addressed her directly with his concern.
"Miss Elizabeth," he said in a voice so gentled as to not carry much farther than her person. "I hope you are well. The day has been exciting for you and your family; I hope it has not also been taxing to you so soon upon your recovery."
Seeing him really anxious for her health, she abandoned her silence to offer reassurance. "No, indeed, Mr. Darcy; I am well. I was merely distracted by my aunt's advice, which I am trying to assimilate," she confessed mysteriously, casting her listening aunt a sly glance. "But I am perfectly sound. I shall be racing Caesar over the grounds again tomorrow; you may depend upon it."
"Was that what you were up to this morning, Lizzy?" asked Mrs. Gardiner with a smile. "When you came running up to the carriage, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Were you actually racing Mr. Darcy's dog?"
"Oh, no, ma'am, not precisely," her niece answered with a guilty, yet impenitent expression. "For Caesar has been taught to heel, and Mr. Darcy had ordered him to remain; I am not so biddable. I ran because I wished, and I could."
"T'would be hardly a fair race in any event, then, Miss Bennet," observed Mr. Darcy, relaxing in the warm presence of Elizabeth's wit despite the presence of such new company. "Poor Caesar would be devastated to know that you could best him due to a lack of proper discipline, which is a virtue I impress upon him at every turn."
All promises to her aunt forgotten at his teasing sally, Elizabeth answered playfully and with a measure of flirtation, "'A lack of proper discipline', you say! Dear me! Do you mean to impugn my parents with such an indictment, or do you mean to impugn yourself, for failing to master me?"
"Neither," returned he, with equal quickness. "I would instead marvel, Miss Elizabeth, at how rapidly you move to assert blame upon others when it is your own particular willfulness at fault."
Elizabeth's laughter gave her new freedom. She clapped her hands and gaily replied, "Well said, Mr. Darcy! I own it to be so. But you have forgotten to mention that I also like to run outdoors, and that I am liable to yield under such temptation as a sunny day affords. You might add to my list of faults, then, a certain high-spirited self-indulgence, which I fall often victim to."
"That is a failing indeed," observed Mr. Darcy mildly, "but you shall be forgiven for it."
She raised a brow to him. "That is charitable of you, sir. Yet, with such a failing to stain my character, may I ask why should I be absolved of it?"
Mr. Darcy's answer and his smile came without hesitation. "I can supply two reasons: first, because it does no particular injury to anyone, except perhaps to yourself; and second, because I can laugh at it -- whereas you have owned you cannot laugh at any of my faults. Regarding the latter, I feel there must be some measure of justice applied to the balance between us, and therefore I am obliged to offer you pardon."
Mrs. Gardiner, somewhat alarmed by their gleeful repartee, thought it wise, at this point, to cut in before any mischief could be wrought. "Our dear Elizabeth is indeed high-spirited, and we have often lamented it for her sake at the same time as we have ourselves enjoyed observing its amusing fruits," she observed, making Mr. Darcy's smile falter at this gently veiled chiding aimed at her niece. Elizabeth, conscious of it, colored slightly and looked aside at her aunt as Mrs. Gardiner continued, "It has been a mark of her character since childhood, beyond even the normal energy and enthusiasm of youth. I believe Elizabeth has mentioned to me that you have a much younger sister, Mr. Darcy. Are such high spirits familiar to you as an aspect of your sister's nature?"
"Georgiana has always had her playful moments when undertaking her amusements," replied Mr. Darcy more sedately. "She is twelve years my junior, and so I have had many years to enjoy attending to her childhood diversions when I was not away at school. But she is now a young lady nearly grown; she will be sixteen this spring and has much settled in her spirits."
"I am sure she has grown very elegant," Elizabeth demurely commented, recalling her duty to her aunt and turning the conversation to a less sportive topic, which would have the added benefit of perhaps learning more of Miss Darcy. "I hope that perhaps I might come to emulate Miss Darcy," she admitted, lowering her gaze. "She has such a gentle spirit, which I hope will temper my wildness, rather than working the reverse. You may wish for a better correspondent and friend for your sister, sir; but time, and future meetings in London, may tell."
Mr. Darcy, unable or unwilling to abandon his pleasure in persisting in their spirited exchange, returned her self-censure with a riposte of praise. "On the contrary," said he with a wry smile, "my sister has a singularly dour elder brother and needs an example of good humour. I would not have her adopt such unrelenting gravitas as you have marked in me."
Elizabeth marveled anew at his candor, while Mrs. Gardiner wondered at such familiarity between her niece and this gentleman of noble lineage and immediately took it upon herself to observe them both as closely as she could once they were called in to dinner, which, as it happened, followed immediately after Mr. Darcy's last pronouncement.
Being by long and tender acquaintance far easier to read, her niece became Mrs. Gardiner's first object of observation. Elizabeth had always been talkative and cheerful in nature; but tonight, she appeared ebullient, although much of these animated spirits seemed to stem from an extension of Jane's joy, which basked the table in a gentle glow that touched all its members. So, although Elizabeth spoke often and warmly, her aunt could not divine that it was done to draw the eye of her handsome gentleman friend.
Mr. Darcy she also studied. Although he contributed little, he appeared attentive as he followed the discussion of wedding plans that naturally pervaded their dinner discourse. Several times, she could observe an increase in his consciousness by the directness of his gaze and apparent animation whenever Elizabeth spoke; and once, she saw him speak to Elizabeth exclusively in a short exchange that left both smiling at each other across the table. But this he also did whenever his friend Mr. Bingley spoke to him, or whenever he likewise addressed his newly engaged friend, whose good humour left none of the present conversants untouched.
Mrs. Gardiner could not, therefore, ascribe in all fairness a motive of determined flirtation to any of their interactions at the table. But enough remarks and expressions displaying interest and esteem were transacted as to raise her suspicions towards both parties. She was glad now that she had warned Elizabeth when she did.
The parting of their company that evening was all that was amiable; but as Mrs. Gardiner watched Mr. Darcy place himself so as to hand Elizabeth into the carriage bound again towards Netherfield, she offered up a prayer that neither her niece nor Mr. Darcy would suffer heartache over a match so improbable as to fortune and standing.
On Saturday, the entire party at Netherfield gathered in the front sitting room to better enjoy its large and warm fireplace during a day that had turned cold, dreary and wet -- the first sign of winter's anticipated arrival.
Mr. Darcy was hard at work at the escritoire in the far corner, largely ignoring the conversations buzzing around him. His back was to the fire, giving better light to his ledger books as he worked calculations of yield, comparing them from one season to the next.
Elizabeth, in one of the chairs farther removed from the blaze, tried to keep her stitching even as she alternately squinted down at her work in the poor light from the window and studied Mr. Darcy with occasional stolen glances.
The escritoire seemed too small for him, she had decided. His shoulders were nearly wider than the writing surface, and the length of his legs and large feet quite extended beyond the footings of the desk. But his own proportions, though grander than those of most men and certainly grander than the desk itself was designed to accommodate, were so harmonious with themselves as to lend his figure grace. When she considered what she could conjecture of his lineage - the Norman blood of the D'Arcys from centuries before, combined with the Anglo-Scots of the Fitzwilliams of the Highlands - she felt that she could trace both, somewhat, in his mien and build. For did he not have the strong-boned face and the long-legged stride of the conquering men from Normandy? Did he not also have the sturdy, close-sinewed musculature of the Scots -- and every bit of their surprising strength from ages of warriors past?
She smiled as she stitched. Visions of such characters among his family history were pleasing to entertain, for it was difficult to imagine Mr. Darcy with a conqueror's club or a Scottish dirk in hand when she had only ever seen him grasp the tools of a gentleman: the reins of his mount or, as he did now, a pen.
She glanced up to watch his hands alternately spread and move over the pages, and soon, she discovered that her fantastical visions certainly seemed feasible. For his hands, upon inspection, showed themselves clearly more hardy than refined, with his long fingers less tapered and his knuckles much larger than those she had seen among the pale, slender hands of so many coiffed and powdered dandies in the fashionable streets of London. No, Mr. Darcy's hands were certainly not those of a foppish gentleman of leisure, she decided; they had too much mass to be considered elegant. Yet, they were cleverly formed, with a dexterous, tough-tendoned grip that Elizabeth felt suited his decisive nature far better.
As she observed him at his work, he surreptitiously rolled stiffness out of the shoulder guiding his writing. He had been working long in that attitude, she surmised, long enough that he had been there before Miss Bingley had directed her guests into this room following breakfast. Now that so many were gathered in his working space -- which perhaps might have been Miss Bingley's peevish design -- he had drawn his brows together in concentration and perseverance. It seemed he was determined to finish his task, regardless.
His strained expression stirred her, and Elizabeth, suddenly discomfited, was forced to remember herself and attend again to her work.
As she stitched, Elizabeth measured the emotions that brimmed near the surface of her consciousness and sought to understand them. Now that she had spoken to her aunt and had acquainted herself better with her growing attraction to Mr. Darcy, she was prepared to own that her tender feelings were stronger than they ought. She therefore felt only mild surprise when her inclinations drove an impulse she could recognize towards the forefront of her mind: her first desire was to ease his discomfort, to lighten his burden -- to give him aid in any way she could-- even to ease the tension in his shoulders with her own hands. Were he Jane suffering so, she would have done it. But as it was, the notion presented itself as something so wholly improper that she blushed and nearly dropped her sewing as the vision of her actually touching him played upon some inner stage before her mind's eye.
As she fumbled with her threads in a flustered manner, Mr. Darcy's glance alighted upon her with some amusement and curiosity as to her discomfiture. When her gaze met his in response and her already rosy countenance took on a deeper hue, he found himself nearly unable to continue his own work due to the sudden, wild turns of his speculative imagination. Teasing, teasing woman!
Suddenly, the sound of the wind and rain from outside increased, and those conversing in the room were forced to talk louder. Mrs. Bennet had already once complained that the rain had prevented another visit between the Gardiners and Bennets during morning calls, and so, finding the sound of the water slapping against the house disturbing to her nerves, she now complained of it again.
The rain did not, however, prevail against the arrival of one unexpected visitor whose determination and lack of sense rendered him quite impervious to the discomforts of such a journey.
"Mr. Collins!" cried Mrs. Bennet, smothering her alarm at his somewhat sodden appearance with effusions of welcome. "We are very glad you are come to visit, and on such a day, too."
"Madam," replied he, bowing and dripping a little upon Miss Bingley's fine carpet as he removed his bowler hat and handed it to the footman. "I am come today to inquire after Miss Elizabeth's health, for she took such a sudden illness when last I visited as to impress upon me the necessity of calling again to confirm her recovery, once sufficient time had passed as to allow her some hope of obtaining it."
"That is very kind of you, sir," put in Miss Bingley with fawning warmth, for she had found in this absurd man's attention to Elizabeth a much-needed source of mirth in view of her previous day's many mortifications. "Pray, do stay and take some tea, and make yourself quite at home. As you see, there is a seat just there, near Miss Elizabeth's chair."
This invitation was met with many cheerful words and deep bows by Mr. Collins. But Elizabeth, who had risen from her sewing to curtsey with the other ladies upon his entry, immediately sank back into her seat, glancing alternately at Miss Bingley and her mother with no small expression of alarm. Too late, she found herself once again in Mr. Collins' close company as he approached her with a plodding and resolute step.
"Cousin Elizabeth, I am delighted to find you well, and I wished to express to you my humblest apologies if ought I said or did on Thursday contributed to your illness," said he, without further greeting. "And I wish to offer you some comfort by informing you that, in addition to becoming the focus of many meditations as to how best to seek your forgiveness, you have also been the subject of my particular prayers for God's healing and grace. As one who wishes for you only blessings and the happiest of lives, I would greatly desire during the course of this morning to request a private audience with yourself in the hopes of securing both objects," he declared. With a smile at Mrs. Bennet, he added, "I shall, of course, request such permission from your honored parents as required for an audience of this intimate kind."
Elizabeth was aghast. Before she could respond, Mr. Collins turned and at once applied to her mother with his request, which was eagerly granted.
"But of course!" exclaimed Mrs. Bennet. "Lizzy, go into the music room at once and await Mr. Collins."
"Please, Mamma, there is nothing that Mr. Collins may say to me that others might not hear," Elizabeth pleaded, too much now in dread of her suitor to feel concerned by exposing herself in front of their party.
Her mother's response was sharp and biting. "Lizzy, I insist that you go now and hear Mr. Collins!"
Wide-eyed, Elizabeth sought Jane's gaze across the room, silently begging her sister to accompany her. When she stood up trembling, Jane stood, too, but Mrs. Bennet put out an arm to detain her eldest.
"What do you do here, Jane? You have no need to go."
"Lizzy only wished -- "
The hand forestalling Jane's progress tightened on her shoulder a fraction and signaled her silence. "Stay where you are and keep Mr. Bingley company; I insist upon it," hissed Mrs. Bennet.
Elizabeth's gaze offered her sister all clemency as Jane settled obediently back into her seat. Elizabeth then took a tremulous breath, gave her mother a level, angry stare, and resolutely turned from the room.
As Mr. Collins bowed to the company and opened his mouth to make his excuses to follow his cousin, an imperious voice near the fire, intoned so much like that of his patroness despite its depth of timbre, caused him to freeze in his tracks out of ingrained habit.
"Mr. Collins, before you are gone from us, I would speak to you of a matter pressing to Her Ladyship's concerns." It was not a request, and to prove it, Mr. Darcy moved towards the parson and overwhelmed him with the difference of their heights and the fullness of his gaze, dark and flinty now in the firelight. "It should take only a few moments of your time."
The command of his appeal at once rendered the parson into an insensible mass of submission. "But of course, Mr. Darcy!" sputtered Mr. Collins, bowing obsequiously by instinct.
Mr. Darcy gestured for him to follow him from the room brusquely, and Mr. Collins at once complied, following doggishly on his heels to the library. From her chair, Mrs. Bennet huffed at both men in consternation at the timing of such a request as they went out.
When they arrived in the library, Mr. Darcy took a seat of authority behind the desk and beckoned Mr. Collins into the facing chair.
Mr. Collins' nervousness bubbled over into unprompted speech: "Sir, if I may say--"
"I would rather you did not," returned Mr. Darcy. "I would come to my point first, Mr. Collins."
"But of -- " His reply was cut short with an impatient turn of Mr. Darcy's large hand.
"Now, is it my understanding that you came into Hertfordshire under direction from my aunt to seek out a proper wife to join you in your work in the Church; is that not so?"
"You deduce splendidly, sir," replied Mr. Collins, who would have gone on, except that Mr. Darcy's eyes now bound him to silence.
"I would imagine that my aunt has impressed upon you the importance of finding a woman of excellent character, and of good family, and whose comportment would befit the humility and unimpeachable respectability befitting the wife of a clergyman," continued Mr. Darcy. "Is that not also so?"
Mr. Collins nodded mutely.
Mr. Darcy's eyes narrowed as he leaned forward over his steepled fingers on the desk. "You choose exceedingly ill, Mr. Collins, if Miss Elizabeth Bennet is now your object. My aunt would find much to despise in Miss Bennet's impertinence and willful independence were she to hold such a station as parson's wife at the Hunsford parish. Have you never noticed these defects in Miss Bennet when you have been thrown together in company?"
"I confess I have not had much occasion to observe them, sir," replied Mr. Collins in growing alarm. "But, while these faults may present themselves in Miss Bennet in such a setting as Hertfordshire, would not her behavior in Kent be rightly tempered by those senses of natural awe excited in every person by Her Ladyship's authority and standing? Indeed, I would think Miss Bennet's other, better virtues would teach her to mend such defects as an act of respect, especially once she came to understand how much of her care was provided for her by the beneficent generosity of Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
"Upon my word, sir," replied Mr. Darcy in some exasperation, holding up his hand again to forestall further foolishness. "Your hope is indeed extraordinary in view of what I must now relate: I am obliged to inform you that my own standing in society has certainly proven insufficient inducement to curb Miss Bennet's sharp tongue. On more than one occasion, she has gone so far as to discredit my opinions in public, challenge my character, and presume to enter into open debate as an equal against me among my peers."
"Has she indeed?" gasped Mr. Collins, mouth gaping wide in horrified shock. "I do see now, sir, how very mistaken I was in her character. Very mistaken! I thank you, sir, for the kindness of your forethought in sharing this information with me before I made a most grievous error which would have proven, in time, to be of great and lasting annoyance to my noble patroness. I would not see Her Ladyship offended for the world, I assure you, and certainly not by any wife of mine! I shall go at once to inform my cousin that my intentions must, by necessity, shift away from herself in consideration of such ill-considered vanity and pride as this behavior demonstrates."
"Very well-reasoned, Mr. Collins," said Mr. Darcy, forcing back a small smile tugging at his lips.
Mr. Darcy was thanked again and again for his candor and thoughtfulness in giving such advice, and Mr. Collins, having been granted his advisor's leave repeatedly from this interview, turned and quit the room after several bows.
Mr. Darcy arose and went to the window, where, clasping his hands behind his back, he smiled broadly into the driving rain.
In the library, Elizabeth's own nerves were in an awful state. She dreaded the coming interview and had been growing in her vexation and perplexity as the clock behind her continued to tick away without the appearance of her would-be suitor. She had just risen from her chair to run from the room before he could arrive when he did, at last, appear in the doorway before her, and in doing so blocked her last means of escape.
Mr. Collins bowed to her as she started, gestured for her to be seated again with a sweep of his hand, and in discomposed yet solemn tones, thus began:
"My dear cousin, my attentions to you of late have been too marked to be mistaken, but I have just this morning learned that there has, indeed, been some mistake! Forgive me, I misrepresent myself! Let me begin by recounting to you my reasons for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did. It may be advisable for me to begin with my reasons for seeking marriage."
"Mr. Collins --"
Mr. Collins's face clouded at this interruption -- which yielded further evidence of her impertinence -- and Elizabeth at once went silent at his unexpectedly forbidding expression.
He went on coldly, "My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness if I choose well; and thirdly, which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford when she said, 'Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up too high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.'
"And, so, desirous of meeting her requirements and also of healing the breach created by the entail of Longbourn, which, upon the death of your father (who may live many years yet) lawfully will fall under my care, I left Kent to seek a wife among the daughters of your household. Blinded by your manifold attractions almost at our earliest introduction, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. Although I had little occasion to observe the workings of your mind and character, I began to fancy that your vivacity must be acceptable to my patroness, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which Her Ladyship's rank will inevitably excite.
Mr. Collins face took on a look of pained thoughtfulness. "Here I now unhappily discover myself to be mistaken," he continued, "for only just this morning, I was given advice from the highest authority at hand regarding this matter -- the advice of a gentleman who has, in sharing a house and neighborhood with you, been of your acquaintance above several weeks, and whose powers of observation must indeed be considerable, given the greatness of mind which his lineage has bestowed upon him."
Elizabeth's color bloomed as she wondered, supposed, and was silent. Mr. Collins took a breath of some satisfaction at seeing her discomposure before he revealed his esteemed source: "Mr. Darcy, who is Lady Catherine de Bourgh's most esteemed nephew, spoke to me himself just moments before I entered this room, and acquainted me with such failings of your character as I deemed weighty enough to justify my throwing off any notions to form an alliance with you. Indeed, I now deem it my Christian duty, and my duty as your cousin, and my duty most notably as a clergyman, to alert you to these faults in your sinful nature which will inevitably expose you in your lifetime to censure by those in a position of rank, and which, indeed, may affect your own future prospects if they are observed by other gentlemen of any standing."
"Sir," said Elizabeth, suddenly burning with curiosity, "your words affect me deeply, and my interest and concern are all aflame. Please, Mr. Collins, I beg of you -- be frank with me, and I shall thank you in advance for any insight which you may relay to me from the mouth of Mr. Darcy."
"It is a privilege indeed to have such notice given to my concerns by such a man," mused Mr. Collins, "but in this, he greatly resembles his aunt; I therefore cannot tender any true surprise. But I shall not fail in my duty to you, madam, by giving you all the benefits to be found in his most attentive correction.
"My dear cousin," he continued sternly, "Mr. Darcy has informed me that you have a certain 'willful independence' in your character which refuses to bend before the dignities of rank and superior breeding. It was with great astonishment on my part that he gave me to know that you -- on more than one occasion! --have so raised your own ill-formed opinions in your eyes as to render you too willing to most impertinently challenge his own, and more damaging still, that you have even thus acted before others and exposed yourself to ridicule by attempting to compare the workings of your mind to that of an educated gentleman. Beyond this, he tells me, you have also entered into argumentation on points of his character and merit within discourse in a manner most unbecoming a lady, behavior which would again reveal no small feelings of undue pride in your own vain ignorance."
As Mr. Collins paused to recover his breath -- a needful resource becoming more and more valuable as his haranguing increased in volume -- Elizabeth tried to paint upon her face an expression of contrition, but she was helpless to do more than cover her mouth to hide her rising mirth.
Mr. Collins, seeing her discomposed and covering her mouth (which in his eyes, seemed to display some manner of self-censuring dismay) continued with some warmth, "All of these failings caused me to reconsider carefully those offers I had hoped to make to you today. But of greatest weight was Mr. Darcy's opinion that such behavior as you exhibit would be most repulsive to his noble aunt, rendering you in her eyes most unfit for assuming the role of parson's wife. Indeed, Miss Elizabeth, I am afraid that hardly any man would deem such qualities fitting in a wife, and I urge you now to re-examine your behavior and your conscience before you are wholly beyond the reach of amendment!"
As unexpected as this reproval was to Elizabeth, relief upon relief nevertheless mounted within her breast, and she had to force down her own laughter, even as he rebuked her. Her eyes began to sting and water with the effort.
Mr. Collins, seeing some evidence of what he perceived to be distress, softened his tone of address, but did not relent in his correction. "For today, Cousin Elizabeth," he went on, "you have missed a great opportunity due to your own poor judgment. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favor as a suitor -- and these offerings have all bypassed you, due to your own neglect of character. Further, you should take it into consideration that, despite your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made to you if you do not reform. Indeed, your portion is unhappily so small already that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications, even if you achieve absolute perfection in all aspects of your conduct. I must therefore conclude, cousin, by repeating my hope that you will attend to your improvement, and by expressing my desire that you will also forgive me for reneging to offer you that which my behavior might have led you to hope for, and which might have benefitted your situation greatly, had your behavior been better."
At this last declaration, he rose from his seat in an attitude of mixed pity and pomposity and appeared to have finished. He bowed to her once with a superior expression of solemnity and turned to go, but not before pausing to add, "Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice of Mr. Darcy in pointing out your faults to be without merit for your consideration as well. It would befit you to offer him your apologies for your past misdeeds and also to tender him gratitude for his correction, even as I myself saw fit to thank him for his information."
"Mr. Collins," replied Elizabeth, her eyes dancing as she held back yet another laugh, "I can hardly not thank him. He is all goodness itself, and I find that today's events have even more fully impressed upon me the true superiority of his mind above my own. I will not neglect any duty to him, I assure you."
Mr. Collins bowed again in approval, and Elizabeth dropped into a curtsey. He went out at last, and as the door swung closed behind him, Elizabeth fell onto the music stool, helplessly clutching her sides as hysterical laughter overwhelmed her.
After some minutes of insuppressible mirth, she dabbed at her eyes and cleared her throat. Even with her discomposure put aside, the heady feelings of relief and happiness would not abate. She could not contain her wild delight at her sudden freedom.
Skipping down the hallway as gaily as a child, she came into the library, beaming to discover Mr. Darcy there alone, having moved to its larger table with his ledger books.
She bit her lip, hiding her smile as he looked up and drew to his feet. With an expression of perfect ease, Mr. Darcy crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her with one dark eyebrow raised, much in the manner of a war general awaiting with confident anticipation the news of his assured victory.
"Sir," said Elizabeth evenly, "I am come to tell you that I must honor my promise to Mr. Collins."
In an instant, his face transfigured to horrified astonishment; his arms came uncrossed; and he seemed to fall a little forward as he clutched the head of the chair he had so recently abandoned and said, "What? What did you say?"
"I promised him that I would apologize to you now for ever having questioned the opinions and workings of your mind," Elizabeth explained. "Indeed, I find it is just that I do so. I own freely that your mind now holds no equal for me -- for that was indeed the prettiest piece of cleverness I ever saw!"
At her pronouncement, Elizabeth gave in helplessly once more to laughter, which only increased as she watched the astonishment melt from Mr. Darcy's face into understanding -- and finally amusement.
As he let out a breath slowly and then dissolved into chuckles along with her, she eventually caught her breath and continued, "I also promised him that I would thank you for pointing out my faults in such a fashion. It was most well done, sir. Your timeliness could not have been better."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you, to discredit you so soundly," said he with a bow and a slightly wicked grin.
Elizabeth laughed again in delight at his perversity and came around the table to stand before him. He straightened in surprise at her nearness and looked rather perplexed as she proffered her hand for him to take. He dutifully took it up without hesitation, weighing it as it fit neatly and almost completely into his palm. Great was his astonishment when she then tightened her grasp and shook hands with him warmly.
"In all seriousness, Mr. Darcy," she began again, whilst they were still thus connected, "I find myself marveling that I owe you once again for snatching me from a fate no less perilous to my life and happiness than what we faced at Longbourn," she said, giving him the best of her brilliant eyes, glittering in sincerity. But seeing him somewhat discomfited at her proximity and praise as he shifted on his feet and struggled to meet her eyes, Elizabeth was forced to recall with anxiety what her aunt had told her --that there was no firm reason yet to suppose him having any real affection for her. She therefore was reminded of her duty to herself, to her aunt, and to him, and restrained herself from showing him her heart.
Primly, then, yet not without warmth, she said, "You could not have acted better today in defense of my sanity were you my own brother. I can find in no other man a truer friend; I am most heartily convinced. I thank you from my heart, Mr. Darcy."
His face at once drained of good spirits at her declaration as he blinked and straightened his shoulders, as if stunned. But she, choosing to see in this change the signals of his surprise rather than his equal measure of disappointment, moved to soothe his spirits for him by pressing his hand. Then, before her courage could abandon her, she gave into her wish to give him some token of her affection in the only fashion she could: she rose upon her toes and brushed a brief and grateful kiss upon his cheek, much as she might have done with her uncle or her father -- or, had she one, as she had named him -- a brother.
As there was no sentiment in Mr. Darcy's heart that felt remotely avuncular or fraternal towards her, he could only blush, step back from her, and say quietly and with a fullness of feeling, "I am ever at your service, Miss Bennet."
"And I yours," returned she, curtseying to him with her own color high at her act of boldness. She then turned and traipsed gaily from the room, leaving him to his dusty ledger books and the searing remembrance of her kiss.